Case pits voters’ wishes against parties’ rights

Federal appeals court judges in Seattle were treated last Thursday to a discussion of why the right of free association should count for less in Washington than it does in California.

The case in question has to do with Washington’s so-called “blanket primary,” which allows the state’s voters to cast their ballots for candidates of either party during the state primary election. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2000 ruled that a similar policy in California violated the “associational rights” of the political parties by requiring them to consider the opinions of voters who are not members of that party — and do not have the party’s best interests at heart — when deciding which candidates it would nominate.

That seemed like a logical enough ruling, but attorneys for the state of Washington — backed by the state Grange, which led the fight for blanket primaries in the first place back in the 1930s — countered that most Washington voters preferred the current system and, consequently, the will of the majority should trump the parties’ rights to free association.

A U.S. District Court judge in Tacoma agreed with them last spring and permitted the blanket primary system to continue for another three years while the case is appealed.

As tempting as it always is to follow the populist path and back the “will of the people,” we believe in this case it’s the Supreme Court that has it right and the voters who have it wrong. Absolute rights should always trump the mercurial desires of the majority. That’s what makes them rights in the first place.

At one time slavery might have been the preference of more than 50 percent of the voters, but that didn’t make it right. In this instance, Republicans, Democrats and Libertarians have a well-established and constitutionally protected right to pick their own nominees without the interference of non-party members or activist judges.

And that’s as it should be.

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