State’s ‘top-two’ primary scheme rightly disputed

The U.S. Supreme Court, by all accounts, showed justifiable skepticism earlier this month when hearing oral arguments from Attorney General Rob McKenna defending Washington state’s dubious “top-two” primary scheme.

Under the Washington plan, which was created by a voter initiative in 2004 but not yet enacted, primary election voters can pick from a wide field of candidates, with the top two vote-getters, regardless of their political affiliation, advancing to the general election.

Washington’s two principle political parties, Republicans and Democrats, oppose that concept, arguing it forces the parties to accept candidates and methods for choosing them that they might not necessarily prefer — a right guaranteed under the freedom of association. And the justices seemed to buy it.

“What this system creates is a ballot in which an individual can associate himself with the Republican Party, but on the ballot, the party is unable to disassociate itself from that candidate,” Scalia said. “If he associates himself with the party, it seems to me the party should be able to disassociate itself from him. And I think it harms the party not to permit that.”

McKenna disagreed, arguing, “It is merely an expression of preference,” adding that political parties have ample time to tell voters whom they are endorsing.

That’s debatable. But what’s getting lost in the shuffle is the whole point of having primaries in the first place.

McKenna, the Washington State Grange and other backers of the “top-two” primary insist they’re only defending the wishes of voters, who’d like to be able to vote for anyone they please, regardless of party affiliation, in the primary.

But the purpose of a primary isn’t to determine the voters’ preference. That’s what a general election is for.

Primaries exist solely to allow parties to anoint their own standard-bearers, and they should have every right to do so by whatever means they desire — even if they choose not to put the matter to a popular vote at all.

If the party nominates someone you don’t like, you can always express your displeasure by not voting for that candidate. But just as the law shouldn’t tell parties who to nominate, it also shouldn’t tell them how that process should work.

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