Most of Washington State is using a new kind of electoral system this year. The partisan Top-Two makes a party name available to any candidate who wants it. One of the major parties is fighting against this in a way that could reinvigorate democratic participation in our state.
With Washington’s partisan Top-Two, all candidates appear on the same primary ballot line and the top two vote getters advance to the general. We’re used to this kind of election with local non-partisan races. What’s different is how candidates identify themselves as partisans. A candidate will state that they prefer a political party: this is only an expression of the candidate and does not imply any real connection to a political association.
The Republicans and Democrats claim they’re harmed under the new system and are acting accordingly. The Republicans have filed an as applied legal challenge to the system: they will need to show real evidence the partisan Top-Two confuses voters over who is the real nominee of a party. Many voters rely on the candidates party affiliation on the ballot to help them choose who to vote for. There could be many candidates claiming the same party preference and this could confuse voters and lead to vote splitting to where the actual party candidate doesn’t make it in the top two.
Supporters of the new partisan Top-Two tout that political parties can still nominate candidates. The Democrats are moving forward with this notion. Democratic Party by-laws say it’s up to Precinct Committee Officers (PCOs) to choose the single candidate who will be the official party standard bearer on the ballot.Local party leadership are used to activities like passing resolutions, organizing fund raisers and putting up yard signs. Now they have the novel function of actually nominating candidates, the primary purpose of a political association.
Most areas are running incumbent lawmakers unopposed and the nomination is just a procedural matter. But things get complicated where there are contested Democratic party nominations.
Unlike a national election, with the candidate as only a face in the media, local nominations can get personal. Choosing one candidate over another can hurt feelings or make nomination seekers feel crossed.
Some PCOs don’t want to make the choice between multiple good candidates and would rather let voters decide the nominee. (This is what the Pick-A-Party primary did. But voters hated that system and voted to do away with it.)
It depends on the individual voter to determine what an official party endorsement means. To some, a nomination is an asset representing an actual standard bearer of the policy proposals and ideals of the party. To others it’s a liability because the nominated candidate is perceived to be crowned by so-called party bosses.
Some are complaining about the nominations. They’re decrying the PCO nomination rules and calling for non-partisan elections. But that’s throwing out the baby with the bath water. It’s the process that could be improved. The Democrats, or any other organization, could open up the system by holding caucuses or using a web-based solution for nominating partisan offices.
The partisan Top-Two sidelines association by diluting a political group's name brand. It’s only natural for people to associate within an organization. This is what grassroots politics are about. We need to encourage this. It’s a new experience for local major party organization’s to nominate candidates. They should get the hang of it and hopefully open up the process for greater participation.