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Top-two system muddies state’s politics

Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed and Thurston County Auditor Kim Wyman discuss the implications of the top two primary system. - Charlie Bermant/Staff Photo
Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed and Thurston County Auditor Kim Wyman discuss the implications of the top two primary system.
— image credit: Charlie Bermant/Staff Photo

The newly enacted top-two primary will change how people vote and elect people who more closely represent the will of the people but will create some uncertain situations, according to information presented at a meeting of the Washington State Association of Counties in Bremerton on Thursday.

The system, which faces its first test on Aug. 19, is a work in progress and will change in reaction to test cases that will emerge after the election.

“This brings us into uncharted territory,” said Thurston County Auditor Kim Wyman. “I fully expect that it won’t be too long before the parties will sue us. But a lot of districts have already favored one party or another, and they are OK will having two candidates belonging to the same party.”

Wyman said an election in a district that consistently polled 15 percent for a Republican candidate a race between two Democrats would result in a more meaningful discussion of the issues and a better candidate prevailing.

For instance, a contest in heavily Democratic downtown Seattle between two Democrats, one liberal and one more moderate, would be more compelling than one between a Democrat and a conservative Republican who was all but certain to lose.

On the other hand, as former Washington State Democratic Chairman Paul Berendt said, some voters will “have ballots that do not reflect a diversity of ideas.”

In addition to Wyman and Berendt, the panel featured Kitsap County Republican Chairman Jack Hamilton and Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed.

Reed outlined the recent history of the state primary, beginning with the open “blanket” system that allowed cross-party voting.

This was replaced by a system requiring a single party preference, which was in place in 2006.

This year, the system elevates the top two primary vote-getters to the general election, which theoretically could result in two members of the same party opposing each other in the general election.

This situation could occur locally, in the race for South Kitsap commissioner. With two Democrats, one Republican and an independent in contention, it is possible that the fall contest could pit Democrats Charlotte Garrido and Monty Mahan against one another.

Even with the expected lawsuits, Reed predicts the system will hold fast for future elections. It was challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court, but supported by a 7 to 2 majority.

This margin, Reed said, will discourage any further challenges.

Wyman said the new system will change how elected officials are replaced once in office, a situation that is directly relevant to Kitsap County.

In the past year, two electeds have left their posts before the end of their term, with the replacement selected by their party.

Under the new system officeholders are not elected as their party’s nominees, so the party will not be entitled to pick the replacement.

Wyman would not predict how this would shake out, but that resulting court cases would set the necessary precedent.

A Republican, Wyman said she would not mind voting for two Democrats in the gubernatorial election if they were the prevailing candidates.

She noted that if the new system was in place in 2004 the election would have been more decisive.

Christine Gregoire and Dino Rossi, who became the nominees that year, were the top two votegetters. And the omission of third party candidates in the general election would have provided a decisive result, one way or the other.

On the other hand, the 1996 election during which Kitsap Republican Ellen Craswell was her party’s nominee would have turned out quite differently. Craswell earned that nomination with only 15 percent of the total vote due to a crowded Republican field.

The case may eventually return to the U.S. Supreme Court, but not until it is tested at least once.

“The losers are the independents,” Hamilton said. “Many people want to vote for the candidate and not the party. As it stands, the best way to accomplish this is to join a party and get involved. You can’t change things from the outside.”

Berendt agrees the voters will face lots of unforeseen circumstances, but also predicts the new system will survive.

“Political parties always learn to play the cards they are dealt,” he said.

See related Guest Opinion, page A4.

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