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Taking the ‘Party’ Out of WA Politics?

October 5, 2007

Seattle, WA/Washington, DC – It's up to the U-S Supreme Court to decide how Washington State will run its primary elections. This week, the court heard arguments challenging a primary system that Washington voters approved in 2004. It's known as a "top-two" system, meaning the top two candidates emerge from the primary to face each other in the general election –- even if they're from the same political party.

Becky Cox, president of the League of Women Voters of South King County, says voters may not realize the outcome of the case will affect future political campaigns and, especially, third-party candidates.

"The way the primary is proposed, we feel it would eliminate potential for any party, especially a minority party, to have a place on the ballot."

Political parties large and small have worked together to defeat the top-two primary, saying it's unconstitutional. Voters had approved it because it resembles the earlier, so-called "blanket primary" system that was used in the state. It had been very popular with voters, but also was struck down in court in another lawsuit by political parties.

Today, only one other state, Louisiana, uses the top-two primary system. Cox says this type of primary downplays party affiliation. The League of Women Voters believes that does voters a disservice, because people are familiar with the party system.

"We feel it's a more accurate way for people to identify the positions or the areas of interest and concern of a person, if they know what political party they belong to."

The case the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing is a legal challenge to Initiative 872, which was approved by Washington voters three years ago. The political parties' lawsuits have kept Washington using a third type of primary in the meantime. It is known as a "Montana-style" primary, in which voters must choose a party affiliation at the time they cast their ballots.

The Supreme Court may rule on the constitutionality of the top-two system as early as this fall.

Chris Thomas/Craig Eicher, Public News Service - WA