Throughout 240 years of our nation’s history, nothing politically is more important to Americans than who is elected president.
With the Republican Party political caucuses Saturday, the Democrats’ caucuses coming up on March 26 and the Washington presidential primary coming up May 24, I want to talk with you about how we nominate candidates for president.
While our state is nationally recognized for being on the cutting edge of reforming the election system to have more inclusive, informed and accessible voting, this is an appalling exception.
The United States has a decentralized system of elections. Each state decides how it is going to carry out the presidential nominating process. Over the past half century, most states have reformed their process to move away from the archaic political party caucus system to letting the people have a direct, secret vote in presidential primaries.
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Washington did this in 1989. A popular initiative to the Legislature, with unprecedented grassroots support, was adopted overwhelmingly by the Legislature.
There were compelling reasons behind this reform.
Political parties’ caucuses
are 19th century creatures from the smoke-filled-room era of party bosses. They are premised on the idea that party insiders gather in precinct caucuses, then county and state conventions to elect delegates. It is very easy for party leaders or presidential campaigns to manipulate the caucuses and conventions.
These are exclusive processes. In terms of the caucus system in presidential years, by far the most money, time, talent and candidate availability goes into the Iowa caucuses. Yet, this year the voter turnout was a paltry 15.7 percent. A couple weeks later, the New Hampshire presidential primary was held and 62.2 percent of their voters participated. That is an extraordinary difference.
In Washington, our party caucuses average 7 percent turnout, while our presidential primary averages 42 percent turnout.
You’re probably wondering why caucus turnout is so low. First, you have to show up at one time on one day to participate. That automatically eliminates sizable portions of our population who are working, out of town, serving in the military, working or traveling overseas and ill, or taking care of sick children.
Second, there are people who feel uncomfortable arguing or even politely discussing their presidential preferences with people in their neighborhoods. This is particularly true for people with English as a second language and people with disabilities. Most people simply feel that it’s none of their neighbors’ business whom they support.
On the other hand, presidential primaries are conducted like any other election – other than having to pick a Democratic or Republican ballot. The ballots are mailed out 20 days before the election. Voters can mail them or use drop boxes at any time. They vote a secret ballot in private. They can take their time and study the candidates.
And now the bad news.
As your longtime Thurston County auditor and secretary of state for 12 years, I was deeply disappointed — perhaps even shocked — how the political parties decided to ignore the will of the people and their elected representatives.
With the Republicans, it was usually partial ignoring. They decided to honor the presidential primary by determining 50 percent of the delegates most presidential years. This year, state GOP chair Susan Hutchison deserves considerable credit and commendation for leading her party to accept the presidential primary results for determining 100 percent of their delegates to the national convention.
The Democrats, on the other hand, have never honored the vote of the people. As far as I know, there is no other state in the nation where a political party chooses to ignore the people’s vote and uses the more exclusive caucus/convention system to determine whom their delegates support at the national convention. In my opinion, that’s an atrocity. If you are a Democrat, you need to speak up.
To compound the problem, this year the Democrats, for the first time, also decided to make Washingtonians’ votes less meaningful by not moving the presidential primary up on the election calendar.
For 240 years, we have been the world’s great success story for representative democracy. Let’s move forward in this state and allow that democracy to work in an unfettered fashion for the presidential nominating process.
Republican Sam Reed, who served three terms as Washington secretary of state and 23 years as Thurston County auditor, is a member of the 2016 Olympian Board of Contributors.