The state Senate has passed legislation to abandon the 2012 presidential primary election. The move saves $10 million.
It’s a good strategy because, to be perfectly honest, the presidential preference election in this state is largely symbolic. It has little to no impact on the process used by Democrats and Republicans to nominate their top candidate at the national level.
Democrat and Republican party officials have never embraced the presidential primary election. They use caucuses – neighborhood political meetings – to select delegates to the national nominating conventions. Caucuses are a process where party leaders can have greater influence than simply turning the process over to the unwashed electorate.
It was Initiative 99 in 1989 that led to the creation of the presidential primary election in this state. The initiative to the Legislature collected 202,872 signatures. Lawmakers approved the initiative on March 31, 1989, without even sending it to the public for a popular vote.
The primary was enacted after reformers in both parties got tired of fringe candidates taking over the caucuses. The final straw was when right-wing conservatives took over the Republican caucuses in 1988 and sent Washington’s delegation to the national nominating convention in New Orleans in support of conservative Pat Robertson over the favored nominee – George H.W. Bush. Washington had America’s largest Robertson delegation in a year when Republicans nationally had united behind Bush.
That was enough of an embarrassment for this state to persuade party reformers to press for a presidential primary election.
Despite its popularity with voters, the political parties have largely ignored the popular vote.
In 2008, for example, fewer than 100,000 people attended caucuses, even with all the interest in both parties for a wide-open White House. By contrast, 1.4 million people participated in the state’s presidential primary – so more than 14 times as many as the caucuses.
Former Secretary of State Ralph Munro used to say more people go to the Seattle Boat Show than go to caucuses.
Caucuses, which are usually held in schools, aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. Arguing with your neighbors over politics can be a challenge. Vote by mail ensures that every voter can participate in the presidential nominating process by selecting a party ballot. Thus the greater participation.
But the party leaders continue to turn their backs on the popular vote.
In 2008, for example, Democrats completely ignored the popular vote and allocated all the delegates to the national nominating convention in Denver, based on caucus voting only. Republicans did a split, allocating half their delegates to St. Paul based on the popular vote and half based on the caucus results.
So the truth is the presidential primary election is largely ceremonial in Washington state.
That brings us back to this year’s debate over the fate of the primary election.
Faced with a budget deficit of more than $5 billion this year, legislators realized they could save $10 million by canceling the 2012 presidential primary. Senate Bill 5119 won a bipartisan vote of 34-14. And a similar bill passed a House committee the same day on a bipartisan vote of 9-2.
“We absolutely prefer the presidential primary to the old caucus system,” said Secretary of State Sam Reed, the state’s chief elections officials. “In any other year, we’d be the last people to suggest not holding the 2012 primary. I actually fought a similar move in 2004. But $10 million is a lot of money when the budget gap is $5 billion and there are so many needs out there, and the voters have compelled Olympia to solve the crisis without new taxes.”
Reed says that what he wants is legislation to require the political parties to use their presidential preference primary election results to set their national delegations in 2016 and beyond.
That’s the right solution. But in the meantime, canceling the largely ceremonial primary election next year is the right move.