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The dirty little secret of the top two primary

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on April 22, 2012 at 5:23 am |
April 23, 2012 9:31 am

Democrats, Republicans and Libertarians share a gripe about Washington’s top two primary: The system lets a candidate claim the party label even if the party itself has endorsed his opponent.

In constitutional terms, this is “forced association.” It’s a no-no. Big time.

Does Washington’s primary do this?

The law tries to evade the problem by not letting a candidate simply put “Republican” or “Democrat” behind his name on the ballot. Instead, he or she “prefers Republican Party” or “prefers Democratic Party.”

In the latest challenge to the law, the Democratic Party cites evidence that the “prefers” business doesn’t clarify anything.

Washington ballots carry a disclaimer informing voters that a candidate preferring a party isn’t the same thing as a party preferring a candidate. If everybody got this, there’d be no constitutional problem.

But there’s no reason to assume every voter does get it. If every voter were that educated, you wouldn’t get people like Dale Washam or Michael Hecht elected to important positions.

The Democrats’ new petition to the Supreme Court recounts experiments by Mathew Manweller, a political scientist at Central Washington University.

Testing active voters’ reaction to ballot replicas – complete with disclaimers – Manweller found that 35 percent of them perceived that the candidates who “preferred” a party were actual nominees of the party.

More than three-quarters of the subjects believed the ballot indicated that the candidates were affiliated with the party they “preferred.”

But under top two, you don’t have to be a member of a party to claim its label. In fact, you could despise everything it stands for and still list yourself as “preferring” it – just as Lyndon LaRouche claimed to be a Democrat for decades.

The Democrats didn’t stop with Manweller. They described an election in which top two ballot confusion probably knocked their candidate out of the November run-off.

In 2010, state Sen. Jean Becker Berkey, an incumbent Road Kill Democrat, was running for re-election in the 38th Legislative District against Nick Harper and Rod Rieger. Rieger “preferred” the Conservative Party; Harper “preferred” the Democratic Party, while Becker Berkey actually was the Democratic nominee.

Only the top two got to move on to November, and Becker Berkey wasn’t one of them. She fell 123 votes short – out of 20,497 cast – of making the finals. This was the election in which a cabal of trial lawyers and progressives fraudulently funneled money to two invented “conservative” PACs to draw centrists away from Becker Berkey, allowing the more liberal Harper to come out on top.

I’ll go way out on a limb here by suggesting that 123 of Harper’s voters, maybe even 124, would have switched to Becker Berkey had they known that the party in fact preferred her. Close to 14,000 of the voters cast votes for one of the two candidates with “Democratic Party” behind their names.

There’s a fairly easy fix for the problem. Just put “endorsed by Democratic Party” or “endorsed by Republican Party” (or Libertarian, etc.) right on the ballot behind the names of the candidates who genuinely are endorsed by the parties.

Let the other candidates prefer to their hearts’ contents, but don’t let voters confuse them with the actual nominees. Keep the top two fans happy; more important, keep the Constitution happy.

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