OLYMPIA - Washington state has suspended its 2012 presidential primary in order to save taxpayers over $10 million. The state's regular Top 2 primary in August is unaffected.
Legislation requested by Secretary of State Sam Reed, a Republican, and Gov. Chris Gregoire, a Democrat, was signed by the governor on Thursday despite their continuing support for the presidential primary as the preferred method of engaging the electorate in picking presidential favorites. At a sober bill-signing ceremony, both the Governor and Secretary made it clear that they proposed the measure, Senate Bill 5119, only because of the state's dire financial straits.
The state will use the precinct caucus and convention system to choose national convention delegates. Caucuses are neighborhood gatherings sponsored by the Democratic and Republican parties. The caucuses gauge the support for each presidential candidate, and those proportions are used to allocate delegates to county, legislative, congressional and state conventions, where national convention delegates are eventually chosen. The gatherings also deal with party platforms and other internal matters.
Reed said cancelling - he prefers the phrase "suspending" - the presidential primary was something he had never envisioned supporting, let alone proposing to the Legislature and Governor.
"We absolutely prefer the presidential primary to the old caucus system," he said. "In any other year, we'd be the LAST people to suggest not holding the 2012 primary. I actually fought a similar move in 2004.
"But $10 million IS a lot of money when the budget gap is $5 billion and there are so many needs out there, and the voters have compelled Olympia to solve the crisis without new taxes." Both houses already have passed budget drafts that book the savings.
Reed, the state's chief elections officer, said ordinarily he would vastly prefer the presidential primary, because it involves many more voters than the caucuses, which tend to attract a more activist crowd.
"The presidential primary IS much more popular with the people of Washington. In 2008, for example, less than 100,000 people attended caucuses, even with all the interest in both parties for a wide-open White House. By contrast, 1.4 million voters participated in the presidential primary - more than 10 times as many as the caucuses.
"Former Secretary Ralph Munro used to say more people go to the Seattle Boat Show than go to caucuses! (The primary was enacted as a people's initiative to the Legislature in 1989 after reformers in both parties got tired of fringe candidates taking over the caucuses.)
"It's also true that caucuses aren't everyone's cup of tea - arguing with your neighbors ... over politics, no less. And some voters can't attend their caucuses - they may be stationed overseas in the military or out of town that day, or house-bound, or working at their job... Now that we're all voting by mail, the presidential primary ballot is in the hands of over 3 million voters for nearly three weeks. It's very convenient. It's for the general public, not just the party activists.
"But, again, times are very, very tough - the worst in 80 years. So Governor Gregoire and I joined to advocate a ONE-TIME-ONLY suspension of the presidential primary. And when we resume in 2016, we hope to persuade the political parties to 100 percent use the primary results to allocate the national convention delegates. That has not been required and Democrats have never used the primary to allocate delegates and Republicans only about half. "
Reed also stressed that suspending the presidential primary in no way affects our regular state primary, which we'll have each year in August.
"When some folks hear that we're suspending the presidential primary, they somehow don't hear the `presidential' part and worry that we have cancelled the entire state primary. That, of course, isn't so. We will have a Top 2 primary this August and again every August in the future."