Sound Off: Caucus numbers not so great

By Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen

Democracy is simple in theory. It has three basic rules: One person, one vote; count every vote; and whoever gets the most votes wins.

Unfortunately, it’s been a little more complicated than that in Washington ever since the Republican and Democratic parties sued to eliminate our blanket primary system. Fiercely independent voters are currently stuck having to declare a party affiliation in primary elections, and are limited to voting on just one party’s slate of candidates.

To some, it may seem fair that only Democrats get to choose between Clinton and Obama as their candidate or that only Republicans have a voice in deciding who their nominee will be. But, in a state with a long populist tradition, it just rubs many of us the wrong way.

Washington has gone from a straightforward process of a blanket primary to a complicated process of party caucuses combined with closed primaries that has left many voters disappointed and frustrated with our presidential nominating process.

The first half of this process, the party caucuses that made big news last weekend, confused many voters, and angered many more. Although the political parties are bragging about the record-breaking number of people who participated in their caucuses this year, those numbers pale in comparison to the numbers of people who would turn out if we had a primary election where they could vote for the candidate of their choice.

A caucus requires participants to be at a specific place on a specific day and time, with no provision for absentee voting. Countless numbers of people, among them those who have to work, are away at school or serving in the military, or are disabled, become disenfranchised by their inability to participate. This has the ironic result of limiting access to a political event that is all about participation.

For many of those who can participate, having to choose a political party and then openly declare a preference for one candidate over another seems intrusive and intimidating. I participated in a caucus that I thought was very well organized, but news reports in the week since have shown that this was not the case at every caucus. In the Republican caucus, there have been serious allegations that party insiders abused the complicated rules and ignored the will of the participants, and one candidate has openly criticized the state chairman of his own party for announcing a winner before all the votes were counted.

Even more insulting to voters is our pick-a-party primary system. This year, our state will spend $10 million in taxpayer funds on a primary election that is little more than a beauty contest, because the results will only be used by one political party to choose less than half of its delegates, and the other party will completely ignore the primary results when selecting their nominee.

The overall result is a system that saps the confidence of our citizens so much that many of them refuse to participate, which is a disgrace to the very purpose of any Democracy.

We are stuck in a situation of having to come up with a solution that can satisfy different groups with their own conflicting interests. Voters want the freedom to choose the candidates of their choice in each and every race, but the political parties want their nominees chosen by party members. Meanwhile, any solution needs to meet the requirements of our Constitution and have the ability to withstand legal challenges.

I think that the best answer is for the political parties who created this mess to set their own interests aside. Democracy only works when people have faith in the system through which their elected representatives are chosen, and that faith can only be restored and maintained with a nomination process that is as simple and transparent as possible.

Democracy is simple in theory, and I think it should be equally simple in practice.

Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, represents all of Island County and parts of Snohomish and Skagit counties.

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