The Washington State top-two primary system breaks down when it comes to a key judicial race in the August 7 election.
SEATTLE — What we have here is a failure to communicate: think we’ve got a “top two” primary for all elections on Tuesday? Nope.
However, it certainly sounds like it. Among the handful of envelope inserts accompanying every state ballot is one that includes the following statement about the state’s top-two primary system:
In each race, you may vote for any candidate listed. The two candidates who receive the most votes in the primary will advance to the general election.
That statement is misleading. And it’s a big deal.
Consider, as an example, the Washington State Supreme Court Position No. 8. After Tuesday’s voting and come November, we will probably see only one name on the ballot for this race: either incumbent Justice Steve Gonzalez or his opponent Bruce Danielson. This is because Washington’s judicial races carry a special exemption from the state’s top-two primary system. In fact, all non-partisan races do.
Here’s how it works: If a candidate for a non-partisan race — which includes all judicial contests such as the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, or for a position such as Superintendent for Public Instruction — receives more than half the votes cast in a primary election, he or she advances to the general election unopposed, according to Kim Van Ekstrom, chief communications officer for King County Elections. At that point only a write-in campaign could disrupt the road to victory.
Libby Nieland from the Secretary of State’s elections division explained that the statement contained in that insert — about the top two vote-getters advancing to November’s election — is mandated by law, as is most of the wording in election literature. Nieland said that their office can’t alter the information, which is the same language on the web site Top 2 Primary FAQ.
What makes this problem even more troublesome is that voter information on statewide and federal primary races is already limited. This year the state has produced only an online voter guide for the primary. For the 2008 primary, Washington produced a printed voter pamphlet after the legislature budgeted the money, but it did not do so in 2004. State officials estimate the cost this year would have been about $1 million.
The state’s 39 county election departments had to decide whether to include information about statewide and federal races in their printed local voter pamphlets. Only four did.
King, Kitsap, Pierce, and Snohomish counties have comprehensive printed voter guides, also accessible online as PDFs, that include local, state, and federal races. Residents of the remaining 35 counties will have to turn to the internet or rely on individual campaign efforts to learn about state and federal contests.
Although voter interest in Supreme Court justice contests pales when compared with partisan races like the governor, the Washington Supreme Court is the highest court of law in the state. It decides issues such as domestic violence, hostile work environments, and growth management law. In 1937, it was a Washington State Supreme Court decision, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, that paved the way for minimum wage laws. Earlier this year, it ruled on the state’s “primary duty to fund education,” a finding for the parents who asserted that the state had been derelict in its duty.
Gonzalez, who has received statewide endorsements, said, “If the Secretary of State isn’t providing citizens with enough information to make an informed decision then the voters aren’t truly choosing between justices – they are simply choosing between names.”
The state is sending an indirect message to voters, that misinformation is allowed so long as only a few races are affected. It’s unfathomable that voters are not provided with clear and accurate information as they prepare to vote. Anything less than complete transparency is unacceptable.