This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.
The Democratic and Libertarian parties are taking another hard legal swing – maybe their last – at the state’s top two primary. We hope it connects.
The primary, which has nuked Washington’s smaller parties, has been upheld in principle by the U.S. Supreme Court. The remaining quarrel is over whether it violates the First Amendment right of association as it is being applied in Washington state.
Top two is popular largely because it successfully counterfeits the state’s cherished blanket primary, which was killed by federal courts a decade ago. The old primary allowed voters to pick any candidate from any party up in any contest.
Party leaders couldn’t leave well enough alone. They argued – correctly – that the system allowed Democrats to choose Republican candidates and vice versa, forcing them to accept nominees their political opponents may have helped select.
It was a slam-dunk Bill of Rights argument. But their victory in the Supreme Court led voters to adopt the top two system, a supposed replica of the blanket primary. Under top two, citizens can still vote for anyone in the state primary regardless of party. The top two candidates – only the top two – move on to the general election in November.
The high court says this passes muster, and who are we to argue? But the fact that a law is constitutional – or popular – doesn’t make it a good law.
The biggest problem with top two is that it severely limits voters’ choices in the general, the election in which far more citizens vote. Statewide elections that once offered candidates a Baskin-Robbins-full of flavors, including Libertarian Strawberry, are now down to chocolate and vanilla.
In a News Tribune op-ed published in January, John S. Mills – a former chair of the state Libertarian Party – described the result:
“Since the new system was adopted, it has become another huge impediment to building any alternative to the Republicans and Democrats. Gone is all the voter choice in the general election.
“Worse, go attend a meeting of these new parties and you will see that attendance is a small fraction of what it was before the top two, although nationwide participation in alternative parties is booming.”
That hurts democracy. Smaller minor parties can be cauldrons of unorthodox political ideas that deserve attention.
The parties’ new appeal to the Supreme Court argues that Washington’s top two system is again forcing unwanted candidates on them. They make a strong case.
The Democrats cite one race, for example, in which their endorsed candidate was almost certainly knocked out of the running by ballot confusion imposed under by the law.
Whether the appeal succeeds or not, though, Washingtonians will still be stuck with the chocolate-and-vanilla November ballot. Many state leaders know that’s not healthy; more of them ought to be saying so out loud.