Wishy Washy Washington

Wishy Washy Washington

Presidential primaries are by nature confusing and seemingly nonsensical at times; then enter the state of Washington, which compounds this confusion tenfold. Today is the Washington State Republican Primary and even many professional D.C. political consultants are thinking: “wait—didn’t the Washington GOP already have a caucus?” In fact, they did have a caucus on February 20th.

Politically speaking, Washington is very unique. For starters, it is one of only three states to conduct all elections through a vote-by-mail system (Oregon and Colorado are the other two), and does not establish traditional polling locations. For each election, ballots are mailed to registered voters ahead of time and citizens are given a deadline by which to mail them back. Washington does allow online voter registration, which must be completed 29 days in advance if done online or by mail; in-person registration must be completed only eight days in advance. Because all elections are conducted on the vote-by-mail system, absentee and early voting are not allowed.

Very few states hold both a primary and a caucus and even fewer hold both for the same party. In Washington’s case, the Republican GOP holds both a caucus and a primary—but not for the same purpose. Precinct caucuses are held in February to pick who the convention delegates will be. The primary that occurs later in May determines which candidate those delegates will support at the convention. It is here at the primary that public opinion is taken into account.

On the other side, Washington State Democrats award their delegates based on the results of their caucus held in March. Democrats are allowed to vote in the May primary but although both Clinton and Sanders will appear on the primary ballot, Democratic Party delegates are not allocated based on these primary results. The May primary is considered a “beauty contest” by Washington Democrats because it does not determine delegate allocation, but is just a measure of public opinion on the candidates themselves.

So how did Washington’s system become structured this way? The short answer is Pat Robertson. In 1988, Pat Robertson, a staunch conservative televangelist, was running for the Presidential nomination and centered his campaign on restoring the moral integrity of the country by opposing issues like abortion. The Republican convention was held in New Orleans that year—a big party town where many Republicans found themselves having a good time on Bourbon Street (where else would one be in New Orleans?). Pat Robertson and his supporters; however, were holding prayer circles and early morning breakfasts and turning off many other Republican attendees. When it was all over, Pat Robertson did not get the nomination but inspired many Washington Republicans to later propose a new means of electing convention delegates, something that was quickly passed by the Washington legislature.

Since then, the Washington GOP has had the option for both a caucus and a primary.  To make things more confusing; however, sometimes they choose not to utilize the primary and stick with the results of the February caucus. Their system is subject to internal state party politics and doesn’t necessarily have to follow predetermined rules. This especially occurs when the state government is controlled by the Democratic Party or when state Republicans don’t feel they have a competitive nominee to put forward. Yet even when they don’t skip the primary, the state party might vote to allocate their convention delegates differently—sometimes half, sometimes a third, etc. It’s no wonder that candidates in both parties are currently complaining about Washington’s ever-changing system.

Washington State is unusual and a bit confusing but that’s the glory of American politics. We’ve got 50 states and each one can and does operate however it sees fit. God Bless America.

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