Introduction to the blanket primary

A blanket primary is a voting system that allows voters to choose among all candidates on a ballot without declaring a particular political party. The fundamental characteristics of Washington's blanket primary system are all found in section 5 of the original initiative sponsored by the Washington State Grange. This language is now codified in RCW 29.18.200. That section provides that,

"... voters may vote for their choice at any primary ... for any candidate for each office, regardless of political affiliation and without a declaration of political faith or adherence on the part of the voter."

The political parties want all of these aspects of the primary abandoned. They want a primary in which voters have to make a public declaration of party affiliation in order to participate in the primary and in which voters are restricted to the candidates of one political party for all offices in the primary.

The political party leaders at the Washington state level insist that these changes are necessary because of the U. S. Supreme Court ruling on a blanket primary law in California. Some of the leaders at the local level in their own parties do not even agree with this claim - and the public generally rejects this approach as an attempt by party leaders at the state level to monopolize the nominating process in this state. According to an independent Elway Poll from 2001, 79% of Washington voters are in favor of the current blanket primary. In that same poll, 84% of self-identified Democrats and 72% of self-identified Republicans surveyed agreed that voters have the right to vote in a primary election without declaring a party affiliation.

There are three key points to consider regarding the blanket primary case. First, Washington primary law is fundamentally different from California because voters are not registered by party in Washington. Second, the political parties have not proved any harm to their rights of association in Washington. In fact, a 2000 Seattle Times/NWCN poll found fewer than 1 in 10 voters had cast a strategic crossover vote to harm a particular political party, which was the parties' main concern. Finally, voter turnout will plummet if a closed primary is implemented, as shown by California's drop in voter turnout since it was forced to change in 2000.

The blanket primary has an extensive history in Washington. Charles Hodde and Ira Shea, among others, of the Washington State Grange drafted an initiative to the legislature in 1934. Initiative 2 received the appropriate number of signatures, was filed and passed the legislature in 1935. The initiative allowed for the type of primary system described above. It was challenged by the parties immediately in 1936, and again in 1978. Both times the Washington State Supreme Court found the blanket primary did no harm to the political parties and the will of the people was upheld.

In 1996, California voters approved an initiative to the people that put into effect a blanket primary system with some elements similar to Washington's. The political parties of California challenged the blanket primary in court, losing soundly at the Federal District Court and Court of Appeals level. However, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and went against the lower courts' rulings, proclaiming the blanket primary invalid. The Democrat and Republican parties of Washington filed suit to abolish the blanket primary, but agreed to hold off on pursuing the litigation in hopes that the legislature could come up with a solution.

The legislature decided not to modify the blanket primary, under pressure from the Grange and the public. The political parties had also adopted another tact: taking the State to court to force a change in the primary system. The Washington State Grange hired attorney Jim Johnson and joined the case as an intervenor with the state. In a March, 2002, decision, Federal District Court Judge Franklin Burgess ruled in favor of the state and the Grange in a strong statement. He agreed with the state that the political parties could not prove any damage to their rights, and that the blanket primary in Washington was fundamentally different from California's system.

The political parties appealed the decision, to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. In September 2003, the 9th Circuit ruled in favor of the parties. The Grange and Washington State petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case. The decision by the Supreme Court justices whether or not to hear the case is expected in April-June 2004.