Is presidential primary meaningful?

The Washington Legislature found $11.5 million to spend on a presidential primary in 2016. The main question left is when to hold it.

We think it should be early in the process – as soon as March 8, as Secretary of State Kim Wyman proposes – or not at all.

There are good arguments for holding a primary, and some good arguments against it. For us, it’s about getting the public involved and debating the merits of candidates in an important presidential year, and if possible drawing more candidates to campaign in our corner of the world.

But the electoral results of a primary won’t be as meaningful if it’s on May 23, which is the default date in state law. Wyman’s proposal to shift the date to March failed in the Legislature, although lawmakers agreed to keep the issue open by appropriating funds for the election. The $11.5 million covers costs for counties that print, mail and count ballots.

It’s now up to Wyman and eight political party leaders to decide the issue by Oct. 1; a meeting is expected in August. Those voting include the chairman and vice chairman of the Republican and Democratic parties as well as the majority and minority leaders in both the state House and Senate.

The state Democratic Party doesn’t really want the primary; Republicans do. Minor parties are excluded from the taxpayer-sponsored event but have their own petition process to qualify candidates for the ballot later in 2016.

Wyman is a Republican, but she needs a two-thirds vote to prevail, and that means she needs to peel off a Democrat.

Certainly there are advocates for a primary regardless of whether it happens early enough to put Washington in the thick of the race; certainly an early primary might draw candidates to campaign in our state. Last time around we saw Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and a son of eventual GOP nominee Mitt Romney in Olympia. This time we might also see Democrats – at least in Seattle or Tacoma.

It might even be entertaining – especially if a candidate like Donald Trump showed up with all that hair-a-flyin’ and words a-spoutin’.

But voters would need to choose Republican or Democratic ballots, which means many voters who don’t want to swear an oath of “preference” for either party will choose to sit it out.

Some voters are sure to be offended when they find out their names and party preferences are available in electronic form to the parties or the general public – free of charge.

Then there’s the pesky fact that only the Republicans plan to use the results to allocate delegates for candidates at the state convention. The state GOP has said it will allocate at least half of Republican delegates based on the primary results.

By contrast, Democrats plan to start selecting their delegates to the state party convention at caucuses – which are neighborhood (precinct) meetings where like-minded residents gather to select their favorite nominees. County conventions complete that process. That is the traditional way to select and apportion all of the party’s delegates, and it’s also the way that Republicans plan to select up to half of theirs.

So as we said, the parties ought to make it relevant enough and early enough to justify the expense. Otherwise, we should just scrap the whole thing.