Last July, I filed for public office to protest Washington State's new election law (generally known as the "top-two primary system"). Even though I'm the chair of my County's Democratic Party, and I have many friends in the Republican Party, the stunt wasn't about those two organizations, per se. My point is the law infringes upon the fundamental right to free association.
Krist Novoselic column runs every Tuesday on the Daily Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @KristNovoselic.
Libertarians, Democrats, and Republicans have been challenging this election law since 2005. (Voters approved the top-two measure, Initiative 872, the prior year.) The State of Washington and the Washington Grange filed a motion to dismiss the most recent legal challenge, but in a Federal District Court ruling last week, Judge John Coughenour denied the motions. The court may now examine evidence of voter confusion and any resulting harm to our right of freedom of association.
The plaintiffs listed above will now have to give examples, as I did in this column last year, about how the top-two system hurts free association. And however the District Court rules, you can bet on appeals all the way back to the U.S. Supreme Court (where the state law has already withstood one challenge).
Another thing you can bet on is that most people don't understand the merits of the latest court challenge. I found this out during my short-lived candidacy a few months back. People asked me about my protest, and I'd find myself explaining basic concepts on how the right of free association is derived from the First Amendment of the constitution and why it's important. Most people come around and agree, but some can't get past the antiquated notions of party members as "hacks" or "party bosses."
Instead of going over the ruling and constitutional law--a subject where I'm no authority--I want to take this occasion to remember a Democratic Party activist who recently passed away. Her very admirable life is an example of why I keep harping on this issue.DiAnne Knudsen, who died at age 63 last March, was the treasurer of our county Democratic Party. Even though she struggled with illness, DiAnne did a great job keeping our financial records straight. She was active her entire life in a party that spoke to her passionate beliefs. She lived in a house on the mini-storage facility she operated in Cathlamet, Washington. At election time, the fence around the facility would be covered with signs for Democratic candidates. (She probably lost business from Republicans!)
So here's the point--DiAnne couldn't give thousands of dollars in campaign contributions. She couldn't give tens of thousands of dollars to PACs, or 527s ; she couldn't spend money on independent expenditures or hire lobbyists to work in Olympia or D.C.. What she did do was group with like-minded people so she could amplify her voice in the political arena by nominating a candidate to stand for election.
With the top-two system, as it currently stands, the State has now taken control of a private group's name and, on a public ballot, given it away to anyone who wants it - effectively muting the solitary voice of people like the late DiAnne Knudsen.
Voters originally passed the top-two because they hated exclusive, pick-a-party primary ballots. Since then, most people haven't given the new election law and the legal trouble it's in much thought. Voters just want more choices. A simple way settle the court hassles, while preserving the wide-open choices in the primary, is to drop the "prefers party" business and instead have authentic party candidates on the ballot. And if you think those party candidates are hacks, don't vote for them. Under such a primary scheme, as I propose, you could vote for whomever you like. There are other ways, without the legal problems, to do elections also.
I know that the Democrats and Republicans, by virtue of their political fundraising, control the system. There's good reason people like seeing those big, bad parties, get squeezed. But let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater. We need more street-level association, not less. The court is right in giving the current form of the top-two another look.