An Early Ballot Test

New Wash. Primary May Set Table

Posted July 23, 2008 at 6:21pm

For some Washington state candidates, Aug. 19 is more than a primary election.

The state this year has installed a new “top two” primary that allows voters — regardless of party — to pick their favorite candidate out of the entire field. The top two vote recipients move on to the November general election.

For some political observers, the August results could be indicative of how much support a candidate has heading into November. For others on the ballot, the results will be meaningless.

And in the competitive 8th district rematch between Rep. Dave Reichert (R) and 2006 nominee Darcy Burner (D), the new system has unclear consequences for their respective campaigns. In 2006, Reichert defeated Burner 51 percent to 49 percent, a margin of about 7,300 votes.

“In terms of what it means regarding level of turnout and who turns out in the primary, we’re all flying a little bit in the dark given that we haven’t had this before,” Burner spokesman Sandeep Kaushik said.

The timing of the primary is also new to Washington, which could also have an impact on who votes. In recent years, the statewide primary was held in mid-September. This year’s primary is in mid-August — a popular vacation time for voters.

David Olson, a political science professor emeritus at the University of Washington, predicted that because Washington is a “traveling state,” turnout is going to be significantly less than in previous years.

“The turnout is going to be much reduced from the primary to general,” Olson said. “I think it’s going to be very hard to predict who’s going to have the upper hand in the primary versus the general.”

What might aid turnout, however, is that many Washington voters use the mail-in ballot, which will be sent to voters on Aug. 1, or just less than three weeks before the primary, according to the secretary of state’s office. Burner’s campaign predicted that 70 percent to 80 percent of voters in King County, the largest in the district, will vote by mail.

Olson said that now that the 8th district is competitive between the two parties, it will be difficult to infer anything from the August results, which are likely to show similar vote tallies for Burner and Reichert.

“That district has increasingly become two-party competitive, which means that the division between Burner and Reichert is going to be fairly narrow and only a fool would try to predict from the primary what’s going to happen in the general,” he said.

Many Republicans and some Democrats see the August results as not indicative of the general election because Democrats have always had traditionally higher turnout in their primary.

“We wouldn’t be surprised if Darcy took first in the primary,” Reichert spokeswoman Amanda Halligan said. “Historically, Democrats have had higher turnout in the primaries than Republicans.”

In September 2006, when voters still picked a primary ballot in Washington, Burner received about 2,000 more votes in the Democratic primary than Reichert did in the GOP contest. And in the 2004 primary, about 9,000 more Democrats voted than Republicans in the respective 8th district primaries.

Numbers like those are yet another reason Republicans will not be holding their breath on primary night in August.

“We feel like the real election is in November, and we’ve got our sights focused on that,” Halligan said.

Yet another difference for this primary is that because only two candidates progress to November — and the two will certainly be Reichert and Burner — there’s no room for an Independent or third-party candidate to affect the general election.

While there was no third-party candidate in the 2006 race between Reichert and Burner, a Libertarian candidate got 6,000 votes in the 2004 race between Reichert and the Democratic nominee.

On the 2008 primary ballot, there are two candidates who do not state a party preference. Under the new primary system, these two candidates will find it almost impossible to make it onto the ballot in November.

Also under the new system, candidates have 16 characters under their name to state their preferred party affiliation. While Reichert has chosen to put “Prefers Republican Party” under his name on the ballot, the state’s likely Republican gubernatorial nominee, 2004 candidate Dino Rossi, has used the language “Prefers G.O.P. Party.”

“What Dino has said is that he always puts GOP on his yard signs and his ads on his TV and radio and it was his desire to remain consistent with that,” Washington State Republican Party Chairman Luke Esser said.

One GOP legislative candidate used his 16 characters to say he preferred something along the lines of “No Gas Taxes Republican Party,” according to Esser.

But at least one Democrat pointed out that some voters might be more familiar with the term “Republican” than “GOP,” which could be a plus for Rossi if he is trying to play down his ties to the national party.

National parties are also cautious about interpreting any of the results from the new primary.

“I don’t think we’ll use this is a hard and fast indication of what’s going to happen in November,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Julie Shutley said.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Yoni Cohen agreed that these are two different voting systems.

“Comparing the August primary to the November general election is like comparing apples to oranges,” Cohen quipped.