A Washington Primary Primer

Definitions

Blanket primary: Voters may choose any candidate, from any party, in any race. The top vote-getter from each party in each race advances to the general election. Washington had this system from 1936 to 2003.

Modified blanket, or "top-two," primary: Voters may choose any candidate, from any party, in any race. The top two vote-getters, regardless of party, advance to the general election. Sometimes, those two candidates might be from the same party. Initiative 872, passed last month, enacted this system.

Open/private-choice, or "Montana," primary: Voters choose a party ballot and must select candidates only from that party. No record of the party ballot choice is kept. This was the system we used in September following earlier legislative action and a gubernatorial veto.

Open/public-choice primary: Voters choose a party ballot and must select candidates only from that party. A record of the party ballot choice is recorded and publicly available.

Closed primary: Voters register with a political party and can vote only for candidates of that party. Their party registration is public.

How we got here

2000: The U.S. Supreme Court invalidates California's blanket primary.

The Democratic Party in Washington sues the state in U.S. District Court, seeking to have our similar blanket primary struck down, contending that it denies a party's right to choose its own candidates. The suit also seeks to compel the state to require voters to choose from among candidates of just one party, to record a voter's choice of party ballot, and to disclose who chose which ballot.

The Republicans and Libertarians join the suit. The Washington State Grange, which successfully fought for the blanket primary in 1935, intervenes to oppose change.

2001: A U.S. District judge declines to impose those specific changes to the primary system but continues to consider the constitutionality of the blanket primary.

2002: The district court judge finds for the state, saying the political parties failed to show how the blanket primary is unconstitutional. The parties appeal to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

November 2003: The appeals court reverses the decision and sends the case back to district court. The state seeks an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

February 2004: The U.S. Supreme Court declines to hear the state's appeal.

March 2004: Anticipating that the blanket primary will be struck down, the Legislature passes a bill to create a "top-two" primary, along with an amendment that authorizes a Montana-style primary as a second choice.

As expected, the U.S. District Court finds that Washington's blanket primary "on its face is an unconstitutional burden on the rights of free association of the Democrats, Republicans, and Libertarians" and prohibits its use.

April 2004: Gov. Gary Locke vetoes the top-two primary bill, setting the stage for use of the Montana-style primary in September.

November 2004: Voters approve Initiative 872, creating the top-two primary.

 
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