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Voters must select party next election

Island County Auditor Suzanne Sinclair expects to see some unhappy voters when the polls open Sept. 14 for the state’s primary election.

For the first time in some 70 years, primary voters will have to declare their party affiliation.

“My suspicion is they will choose not to vote in the primary,” said Sinclair of voters’ reaction to the new system.

Gov. Gary Locke assured a big change in this state’s primary last Thursday when he vetoed the “top two” primary system the Legislature had sent him. His veto automatically put in place something called a “Montana-style primary,” in which voters choose and cast ballots by party. Voters can choose only from candidates in a single party, and top vote getters in each party advance to the general election.

Locke explained his move by saying the “top two” system could allow two candidates from the same party seeking the same office to appear on the general election ballot. He reasoned that the Montana primary would provide more choices between parties on the general election ballot.

Sinclair said the Montana primary will also allow easier general election ballot access for minor parties, such as the Libertarian Party. Chances are slim they would ever win a place in the “top two” system, but now they won’t be competing against Democrats and Republicans in the primary.

A change in the state’s primary system was required by the federal courts, after a lawsuit filed by the state Republican, Democrat and Libertarian parties, who objected to the “blanket primary” which has been in force since a statewide initiative sponsored by the Grange passed in the 1930’s. The idea was to limit the power of political parties to control the primary ballot and to protect voter privacy.

With the new Montana-style primary, voters will have to select either a Republican, Democrat or Independent ballot, which will foreclose the possibility of “crossover voting” for candidates in another party — another longtime annoyance to this state’s political parties.

Sinclair said procedures for the Sept. 14 primary vote still need to be worked out. But she said the choice of ballot will be a “private choice,” in that no public record will be kept of who chooses which ballot.

The new primary system will also be more costly. Sinclair said Island County budgeted $71,000 for this September’s primary, but that was under the old blanket primary system in which everyone got the same ballot. “It could be double or more,” she said of the additional costs.

The Montana-style primary could be short-lived if the Washington State Grange has anything to say about it. The Grange announced Monday that it is promoting the “People’s Choice” initiative for the November ballot, which asks voters to adopt a “top two” primary system. Voters could then choose from among all candidates on a single ballot.

“We need to protect the voting rights we have enjoyed for 70 years so that our children can continue to exercise their freedom of choice,” said Terry Hunt, state Grange president.

According to the Grange, “top two” primaries have withstood court challenges in other states.

“Washington state voters don’t like to be told who they can and can’t vote for,” said Hunt. “And we will fight to preserve their freedom.”

The initiative needs 250,000 signatures by the end of June to gain a spot on the November election ballot.

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