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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spin Control: March 12 primary gives voters a say – albeit small – in picking presidential nominees

A Lincoln County ballot drop box in Harrington, Wash., is pictured in 2022.  (Jonathan Brunt/The Spokesman-Review)
By Jim Camden For The Spokesman-Review

Some Washington voters might be wondering why, if they just marked and mailed a ballot a month ago, another ballot recently arrived in their mailbox.

The answer is simple, and a bit complicated. Last month’s ballot was mainly a chance to have a say about local taxes. This month’s ballot is a chance to have a say about the nation’s highest office.

Just how much of a say is hard to nail down with any certainty, but probably not huge. It’s the latest iteration of Washington’s decadeslong experiment to improve its place in the presidential nomination process from frequently irrelevant to big-time player.

In 1988, voters forced the Legislature to approve a presidential primary although the Democratic and Republican parties wanted to keep the precinct caucuses system. Primary supporters argued primaries are easier to understand and generate greater participation. Plus, a well-timed primary – or so the theory went – would draw campaign money and the attention of presidential candidates to Washington and its particular issues.

It rarely has worked out that way.

Party leaders – who often viewed the precinct caucuses as a way to excite their most loyal members, recruit new ones and exert some control over the outcome – initially resisted. Because Washington voters don’t register as Democrats, Republicans or independents, party officials said there was no way to be sure that their members were picking their party’s nominee rather than members of the other party creating some mischief by voting for a candidate more likely to lose in November.

Caucuses, however, had also been subject to manipulation and mischief, such as moving the gathering location at the last minute or flooding the meetings with well-trained activists.

After the Legislature enacted the presidential primary initiative, party officials sometimes ignored the results completely and continued to allocate delegates based on caucus results. Other times they split the delegates between the caucus results and the primary results.

The date of the presidential primary and caucuses also varied, could be weeks or even months apart and yield vastly different results. In 1992, the precinct caucuses were on March 3 and the presidential primary on May 19. Bill Clinton finished third in the Democratic caucuses, behind Paul Tsongas – who would drop out three weeks later – and Jerry Brown. By the time the primary was held, Clinton finished ahead of Brown, who was the sole remaining Democrat.

To be assured the primary results measured true party support, party officials required voters to signify that they considered themselves a member, at least at the time they marked the ballot. But some voters objected, noting that it was taxpayers, not the parties, paying for the election, so the state sometimes added an “undeclared” option to its presidential primary, and counted those votes separately.

In 2000, Sen. John McCain was trailing George W. Bush in Republican primary contests, and was expected to come in second in the Washington GOP contest as well. But he argued the country should judge his strength by the combination of the GOP and undeclared votes. Unfortunately for McCain, Bush was still ahead when the totals for the two groups were added.

This year, the presidential primary has no option for voters who don’t want to declare a party. The ballot return envelope requires the voter to check a box declaring a “preference” for either the Democratic or Republican party and “will not participate in the nomination process of any other political party for the 2024 presidential election.” The ballots will be sorted in such a way that the candidate selected on the ballot inside matches the party preference on the return envelope; if it doesn’t, the vote for the candidate marked on that ballot won’t be counted.

Because the ballots have to be printed more than a month in advance, the names on the ballot reflect the state of the presidential race around the first of the year. Three of the GOP candidates on the ballot, Chris Christie, Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy, have dropped out the race, but the votes they get still will be counted. Marianne Williamson, who dropped out of the race but recently decided to get back in, remains on the Democratic ballot along with President Joe Biden and Dean Phillips.

In precinct caucuses, people can support none of the announced candidates or propose sending delegates to the national convention as “uncommitted,” where they might make a deal to throw their support behind a candidate if no one has the majority needed to get the nomination on the first convention vote. In exchange for those delegates’ commitment, the state might theoretically receive something in return if that candidate wins the White House.

Washington’s presidential primary ballots don’t always have an option for uncommitted delegates, but this year state Democratic Party officials decided to include one on its side of the ballot. The GOP side has no such option.

Last week, the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 3000, the largest organized labor group in the state, voted to urge its members to mark their ballots for “uncommitted.” The union’s executive board said such a move would “strengthen the Democratic party’s ultimate nominee to defeat Trump in the General Election in November.”

That strategy is one way to signal dissatisfaction with the voters’ current choices, but is likely to face the same problem committed delegates have in the caucus system. First, the Democratic rules say the votes for any candidate, even “uncommitted,” must be at least 15% of the total. A well-coordinated uncommitted strategy last week in Michigan only got about 13% of the vote.

But even if they reach the threshold, uncommitted delegates would need to go to the convention in which the leading Democratic candidate – whose name will likely rhyme with “widen” – does not already have a majority of the delegates from all the various primaries and caucuses.

Uncommitted delegates are a strategy left over from the days of smoke-filled rooms and party bosses controlling the conventions. Some pundits who apparently long for those “good old days” will work hard to construct a scenario that could lead this year to what’s known as an “open” convention – one in which no candidate has the delegates to win the nomination on the first ballot.

What they probably won’t say is that such a convention hasn’t happened since 1952, back when Elvis was still in high school, the United States was fighting a war in Korea and Marilyn Monroe was just starting to date Joe DiMaggio.

And if you can remember those things happening in 1952, you’re about as old as the likely Democratic and Republican nominees.