State ballot allows creativity with party preferences

Brad Shannon // Published April 17, 2008 in The Olympian
The ballot design for the state's first top-two primary is in, and candidates will have quite a bit of leeway to describe their party "preferences," officials with Secretary of State Sam Reed said Wednesday.

Candidates will be able to list known parties or even make up party names — as long as the name is not obscene and does not take more than 16 characters, Reed spokeswoman Trova Heffernan said.

She gave as an example a candidate whose name would appear as "JOHN SMITH." Next to that it could say, "(Prefers Example Party)" or "(States No Party Preference)."

Officials also did not rule out that a candidate could say he or she was a "Tim Sheldon Democrat," "Sam Reed Republican," or "Tax Cut GOP" or "Enviro Dem" or "No War Dem."

"The candidate provides the name of the party. So it's up to the candidate," said Katie Blinn, assistant state elections director.

But with a character limit, fancy labels won't work. The names Republican, Democrat, Libertarian or Green fit with ease, but Socialist Workers would be too long, for instance. "It'll be up to the candidate to decide how to abbreviate," Blinn said.

Heffernan said the reason for so much leeway is it's a First Amendment free speech issue, and the state wants to protect itself from legal action.

The state's Democratic and Republican parties were reviewing the announcement and did not say what legal steps they will take to counter it. With the primary system, the two top vote-getters in August advance to the general election in November regardless of party affiliation — even if they are from the same party.

The top-two got the go-ahead last month after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Initiative 872, which voters approved in 2004, was constitutional.

But the court left open the possibility of further legal action if parties could show their legal rights of association were harmed.

"It's going to take a while for us to take a look and review this and figure out what our next steps are," said Luke Esser, state Republican chairman. "Bear in mind, we're still in court. So the questions of how exactly to proceed in court are open."

Libertarians contend their trademarked name means that no candidate other than a party nominee can use it, but one leader, Ruth Bennett, said recently she doesn't think the party will go to court at this time.

Democrats blasted the primary as limiting choice and harming minor parties. "Today, Sam Reed made it official that Washington state has outlawed minor parties. The Libertarian, Green, Independent and Progressive parties can sell their office furniture and computers because they will never again see their names on a meaningful ballot in our state. Dishonestly framed under the auspices of promoting choice, Sam Reed's Top Two annihilates voters' right to choose among a wide range of candidates and the ideas they represent," said Dwight Pelz, state Democratic Party chairman.

Thurston County Auditor Kim Wyman told fellow Republicans last weekend at their county convention that the state's new primary could let a candidate run as a "Kim Wyman Republican."

People laughed, but Wyman wasn't joking.

The ballot is the latest step in a years-long battle begun in 2000 when the U.S. Supreme Court threw out California's wide-open primary, which was fashioned after a blanket-system in Washington that let voters pick any candidate from any party in the primary. The court said that violated a party's right to limit who nominated its candidates, and after Washington's political parties sued the courts invalidated that system.

Lawmakers adopted a top-two primary with a pick-a-party option as the legal backup in 2004, but then-Gov. Gary Locke vetoed the top-two, which left behind a Montana- or Idaho-style partisan primary.

The Washington State Grange then mounted the I-872 campaign, which passed resoundingly, but the parties sued and lower federal courts ruled it unconstitutional.

Blinn said the state elections agency awaits responses from the political parties and should finalize its ballot plan "probably toward the end of next week."

There is urgency because elections offices can receive declarations of candidacy by mail May 16, Blinn said.

Filing week is June 2-6, and the primary is Aug. 19.