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Sue Lani Madsen: Washington’s earlier primary gives voters a chance to make a difference

From left, Democratic presidential candidates entrepreneur Andrew Yang, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and businessman Tom Steyer stand on stage Friday, Feb. 7, 2020, stand on stage before the start of a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by ABC News, Apple News, and WMUR-TV at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. When Democrats in Washington participate in the party’s primary next month, their vote will finally mean something, says Spokesman-Review columnist Sue Lani Madsen. (Charles Krupa / AP)
From left, Democratic presidential candidates entrepreneur Andrew Yang, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and businessman Tom Steyer stand on stage Friday, Feb. 7, 2020, stand on stage before the start of a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by ABC News, Apple News, and WMUR-TV at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. When Democrats in Washington participate in the party’s primary next month, their vote will finally mean something, says Spokesman-Review columnist Sue Lani Madsen. (Charles Krupa / AP)

Washington voters are no longer afterthoughts in the presidential primary season. Along with the other Little Tuesday states of Idaho, North Dakota, Michigan, Missouri and Mississippi that also will vote on March 10, Washington may be pivotal in the 2020 campaign season. And for the first time since the initial presidential preference primary was held in 1992, Democratic votes will count.

Washington state Republicans have always used the primary results in awarding at least half of their delegates. In 2016, all delegates were awarded to Donald J. Trump based on the May 24 primary results. It wasn’t much of a contest. Marco Rubio and Ben Carson suspended their campaigns in March, John Kasich and Ted Cruz in early May. Trump was the last candidate standing.

Washington state Democrats have never counted the primary as anything more than a popularity poll until this year. That meant Washington’s 2016 pledged delegates went to Bernie Sanders, who swept the caucuses even though Hillary Clinton won the primary two months later. This year 100% of both Republican and Democratic pledged delegates will be determined by the primary vote.

“We tried for years to get it moved,” said Caleb Heimlich, chairman of the state’s Republicans. “Washington voters should have a say in who the major parties are nominating.”

Relevance was a primary goal for Secretary of State Kim Wyman in urging the Legislature to move the primary date from late May to early March. Eight of the 13 candidates on the 2020 Democratic ballot are still in the race as of this writing. By the end of the night on Super Tuesday, March 3, and assuming the ballot counting goes as smoothly as in New Hampshire, about 40% of delegates will have been decided but likely without narrowing the field significantly. Washington’s and Idaho’s votes the following week will matter.

The names on the 2020 ballot were provided by the state party chairmen, another change from past practice when the secretary of state was directed to decide who counted as a candidate.

After the muddled caucuses in Iowa, Washington Democrats may be relieved to have dropped the caucus system for delegate allocation. Or maybe not. Washington’s open primary means any voter can vote for any candidate as long as they are willing to sign the declaration on the outside of the ballot envelope. Democrats blocked Republican amendments to add an unaffiliated ballot option in the 2018 legislation that moved the primary date.

The Washington State Democrats did not respond to requests for comment.

“Each party wrote its own declaration and will receive a list of voters who affirmed either “I am a Republican” or “My party preference is the Democratic Party.” The declarations are only binding for the presidential primary and there is no enforcement mechanism. Your mail carrier will probably be able to figure out which list you are on based on the flow of campaign literature and fundraising appeals. Your participation will mostly stay quiet – though it will be a matter of public record whether you participated in the Democratic or Republican primary.”

There will be a temptation on the part of some partisan voters to meddle. It can backfire. Ask a Democrat who crossed the line and voted for Trump in a Super Tuesday 2016 primary thinking it would help Clinton or Sanders.

Heimlich pointed out that even if it’s not a contested race, it’s important for Republicans and for independents who appreciate the accomplishments of the Trump administration to show support in the primary. “The media is going to notice how many votes an incumbent president earns,” said Heimlich. This year in New Hampshire, President Trump set a record for voter turnout compared with Barack Obama and George W. Bush in their perfunctory primaries for a second term. Trump’s New Hampshire total at 129,696 was more than double Obama’s 49,080 and Bush’s 53,962.

So what’s a politically fluid independent voter to do? Pick a side for the day and participate honestly. And keep the recycling bin handy for political junk mail.

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