Initiative 872 Frequently Asked Questions

Washington State Grange President Terry Hunt filed approximately 300,000 signatures with the Secretary of State on July 2, 2004 for Initiative 872 to establish a qualifying primary, or "top-two" system. This will allow voters the opportunity to have the final say over the Washington State's primary election system. These questions and answers relate to the initiative and the legal and legislative context in which it is being proposed.

Why do we need Initiative 872?

Last fall, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Washington could no longer conduct "blanket primaries", as it has for nearly seventy years. When the U. S. Supreme Court declined to review the lower court decision, the Legislature adopted a new type of primary, called a "qualifying primary" or a "top-two primary". However, the Governor extensively vetoed that bill, eliminating the qualifying primary and creating instead a nominating primary, or "Montana-style" system in which voters will only be able to vote for the candidates of a single party in the primary. This is the system voters will face in September 2004, and they're effectively being forced to vote a straight party ticket. This is why we need to implement I-872.

Why did we have to change our primary system at all?

In the blanket primary, each political party was guaranteed one "nominee" on the general election ballot, and voters could vote for any candidate for any office. The court ruled that we cannot do both of these things at the same time. We can have a nominating primary (where each party is guaranteed a position on the general election ballot) or we can change to a qualifying primary (where voters can continue to choose from among all the candidates in each office). The Legislature was forced to change one or the other aspect of the current law.

What is the difference between a "nominating primary" and a "qualifying primary"?

In a nominating primary, assuming candidates for all major parties file for an office, one candidate from each party is "nominated" to appear on the general election ballot for that office. Washington currently has three major political parties - Democrat, Republican, and Libertarian.

In a qualifying primary, no matter how many parties or candidates there are for an office, the two candidates who receive the most votes for each office in the primary advance to the general election.

Does this mean that, in a qualifying primary, the candidates are nonpartisan?

No, the candidates will continue to express a political party preference when they file for office and that party designation will appear on the ballot. However, party preference would not be a factor in determining which candidates advance to the general election. The two candidates who receive the most votes for each office, regardless of party preference, will appear on the ballot at the general election.

Would the primary ballot look any different to the voter?

No. At the primary, the candidates for each office will be listed under the title of that office, the party designations will appear after the candidates' names, and the voter will be able to vote for any candidate for that office (just as they did under the blanket primary).

Would the general election ballot look different to the voter?

Sometimes, but only rarely. Depending on the number of candidates on the primary ballot for a particular office and the amount of public support each candidate achieves, the voter might be presented with a choice in the general election between two candidates of the same political party. This would only happen if both of those candidates received more votes in the primary than any other candidates (in the same party or any other political party). A qualifying primary forces political parties to recruit the best possible candidates and to actively contest all of the offices on the ballot.

In a qualifying primary, would there be offices on the general election ballot where both candidates are from the same party?

This can happen, but it should be fairly rare. According to research conducted by the secretary of state's office, only 4 percent of the legislative races in the last 10 years would have sent candidates of the same party to the general election under the top-two system. In addition, only 3.3 percent of statewide and congressional races in the last 10 years would have advanced candidates of the same party under the top-two. In addition, the vast majority of these instances would have been in "safe" districts where one political party is very dominant and only one candidate from that party emerges from the primary. In that kind of a district, the general election voters would sometimes have a choice between both strong candidates, instead of having the race decided in the primary.

Unfortunately, we have seen recent races for Governor where one of the major parties nominated a candidate that received less than 40% of the vote in the general election. Under this initiative, parties should seek candidates with broad public support who can survive a competitive primary.

Why does the Grange think that a qualifying primary is better than a nominating primary?

There are three reasons:

1. Qualifying primaries are more competitive than nominating primaries. If a party is concerned about not being "included" in the general election, then that party will need to work harder to make sure they recruit quality candidates who can get the votes to move forward. This is a positive thing, because we not only have more choices, but we have better choices. Competition works, and it's served our country very well.

2. With qualifying primaries, the results are more representative of the political preferences and opinions of the voters. As a result, these officials are likely to be much more responsive to the interests of the people they represent, not just the interest of the political parties. Public officials should be selected by the voters, not by the political parties. Voters pay their salaries and for the elections that allow them to choose their public officials.

3. Most of the voters in Washington are independents who want to support candidates of any political party - they want to vote for the person, not the party.

Does this proposed initiative create a "Cajun" primary, like they have in Louisiana?

Absolutely not. In Louisiana, voters are required to register by political party, and if a candidate receives more than 50% of the vote for an office at the primary, he or she is elected (the office does not even appear on the general ballot). Under this proposed initiative, voters would never have to declare political party affiliation and every office would appear on the general election ballot.

Would this proposal eliminate minor party candidates from the primary or general election ballot?

No. Minor parties would continue to select candidates the same way they do under the blanket primary. Their candidates would appear on the primary ballot for each office (as they do now). Minor party candidates have had good success recently advancing candidates to the general election in districts where only one of the major political parties runs a candidate (about 15% of all legislative districts). Presumably they would continue to do well in these circumstances.

Is the qualifying primary (proposed in Initiative 872) constitutional?

Although the U. S. Supreme Court and the Ninth Circuit have ruled that this form of primary is different from the partisan blanket primary previously in use in Washington state and that nonpartisan blanket primaries are not subject to the kind of legal challenge presently being made by the political parties, the major political parties have repeatedly claimed - without foundation - that the kind of qualifying primary proposed in I-872 is unconstitutional. The majority opinion of the U. S. Supreme Court in the CAL DEMO case (in 2000) went out of its way to declare what kind of primary would meet its constitutional test. They said,

"Finally, we may observe that even if all these state interests were compelling ones, Proposition 198 is not a narrowly tailored means of furthering them. Respondents could protect them all by resorting to a nonpartisan blanket primary. Generally speaking, under such a system, the State determines what qualifications it requires for a candidate to have a place on the primary ballot -- which may include nomination by established parties and voter-petition requirements for independent candidates. Each voter, regardless of party affiliation, may then vote for any candidate, and the top two vote getters (or however many the State prescribes) then move on to the general election. This system has all the characteristics of the partisan blanket primary, save the constitutionally crucial one: Primary voters are not choosing a party's nominee. Under a nonpartisan blanket primary, a State may ensure more choice, greater participation, increased "privacy," and a sense of "fairness"--all without severely burdening a political party's First Amendment right of association." (emphasis provided).

The Washington State Grange believes that the qualifying primary satisfies this description provided by the Supreme Court. If I-872 is approved by the voters and the political parties challenge, we are convinced that it can be successfully defended by the Attorney General.