June 2016 Bar Bulletin
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June 2016 Bar Bulletin

How We Choose — Washington Presidential Primaries

By Leah Snyde


At 9:45 a.m. on a Saturday morning, when I arrived at my caucus location I discovered a line stretching around the corner. As I went to get in line, I discovered it stretched around the block. Thirty minutes after the start time, having moved only a few feet, I was concerned that many of us would not be able to vote.

Soon, a volunteer started walking the line and yelled that the building had reached capacity and that alternate locations would be arranged. My group moved down the street, into a park.

Fortuitously, it was not raining. I felt even more fortunate an hour later when we still had no precinct captain — a caucus facilitator. I heard reports that other precincts were finishing up. At that point, things started happening. We were split into groups — Sanders, Clinton and undecided. Being a first-timer, I thought that would be all. Tally the votes, done.

However, with a dozen undecided voters, each group tried to win them over with two-minute speeches. Exhortations from the crowd touched on gay rights, patent reform and war, among other topics. Everyone was given a chance to speak.

Finally, the undecided voters were asked to select a candidate. I thought we would be finished after the second tally. However, once we determined who would get the delegates, we had to select the delegates and alternates to attend the next caucus. I did not ask to be elected as a delegate, I approved of the delegates and alternates who volunteered, and my participation ended four hours after it started.

Generally, the same process is used for both the Democratic and Republican caucuses: first, the precinct caucuses, to select precinct delegates; second, the legislative district caucuses;1 third, the county conventions; fourth, the congressional district caucuses; fifth, the state convention, where a state platform will be adopted; and, finally, the national convention, where the delegates will nominate a presidential candidate and adopt a national platform. Throughout the process, a smaller number of delegates is selected to proceed to the next step.

In Washington, each presidential primary season is different. Washington only holds presidential primaries occasionally. Additionally, the results of the primaries are treated differently in different years by the parties.

Since we have a primary this year, Washington Republicans will assign delegates based entirely on the primary results.2 The Republican Party will still caucus to assign delegates to attend the national convention, but the delegates are bound to candidates based on the results of the primary. Historically, Republicans have assigned at least some delegates based on the result of the primary election.

Conversely, Washington Democrats will assign delegates based only on the caucus results and will treat the primary results as merely advisory. Historically, Democrats have not assigned any delegates based on the results of the primary.

Each year that a presidential primary is held, the State must pay for it, while the parties fund their own caucuses. This year, it is estimated the primary will cost the State $11.5 million.3 Because every Republican candidate had dropped out of the race except for one (there were four on the ballot) and the Democratic vote is only advisory, the May primaries were of questionable value to the people of Washington.

There was significant pressure by the Republican Party last year to hold the primary in March so that Washington voters would have more options for candidates and have an impact on the outcome of the presidential race.4 However, Democrats refused to move the primary. They noted the excessive cost of the primary and the waste of taxpayer funds when the parties could simply caucus as they did in 2012 and 2004.

In 2000 and 2008, the last two times presidential primaries were held in Washington, the voter turnout was well over a million voters. These results dwarf the largest caucus turnout in the history of the state. In 2008, just over 250,000 people participated in the Democratic caucus.

Currently, Washington has 4 million active registered voters. This year, more than 230,000 voters participated in the Washington Democratic caucus on March 26 — about 5.6 percent of the registered voters. However, the Washington primary had a predicted turnout as high as 42 percent or 1.6 million voters. The primary clearly includes many more voters in the process, but Democrats consistently ignore the primary results, while the Republicans tend to vary the impact the primary has in regard to delegates in each election cycle.

Hypothetically, Washington could hold a primary election in which the results do not contribute in any way to the election of a candidate and not a single delegate would be bound to the primary results. Though in the past, when such a possibility has arisen, the State has simply cancelled the primary.

Washington voters cast their primary ballots in May. Any Democratic votes will simply not count, while any Republican votes will be allocated among the presumptive Republican nominee and candidates who had already suspended or ended their campaigns.

1 Some regions do not hold a legislative caucus.

2 http://www.sos.wa.gov/elections/2016-Presidential-Primary.aspx

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