Washington holds first top-two primary election on August 19, 2008.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 2/17/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8937

On August 19, 2008, Washingtonians vote for the first time under the "top two" primary system. Voters can choose candidates of different parties for different offices and the top two vote-getters for each position advance to the general election even if both are members of the same political party. The top-two primary replaces the unpopular "pick a party" primary in use since 2004, which allowed a voter to vote only for one party's candidates for all offices. The top-two system produces traditional Democrat versus Republican races for all the statewide and federal offices on the November ballot. However, the new system results in eight races for seats in the state Legislature in which two supporters of the same party will compete in the November general election. The 2008 primary also marks the first time that statewide primary races, previously held in September, occur in August.

Blanket Primary

Until 2004, independent-minded Washington voters were accustomed to being able to vote for candidates of different parties on the same primary ballot. Unlike most states, which have either "closed" primaries (in which voters register as a member of a particular party and can only vote for that party's candidates in the primary) or "open" primaries (in which voters can select a party when they cast their ballot but are then limited to that party's candidates for that primary), Washington had used a unique "blanket" primary system since 1935. Enacted by the Legislature in response to a petition by the Washington State Grange, the blanket primary allowed a voter to select candidates from different parties for different offices on the same primary ballot. As with most primary systems, the highest vote-getter in each party for a particular office moved on to the general election (even if one party's winner received fewer votes than runners-up from another).

Over the years the blanket primary withstood a variety of challenges in the state courts and Legislature. However, after California voters adopted a blanket primary by initiative, four political parties challenged the method and in 2000 the United States Supreme Court ruled that California's blanket primary unconstitutionally interfered with the parties' right to select their nominees. Three years later, at the request of the state Republican, Democratic, and Libertarian parties, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed that Washington's blanket primary was also invalid.

Proponents of continuing Washington's tradition of allowing primary voters to cross party lines responded to the court ruling by proposing the top-two system, under which instead of having the top vote-getter in each party advance to the general election, the top two vote-getters would move on, even if both came from the same party. Top-two supporters said this would eliminate the constitutional problem because the primary would not select party nominees, but would simply winnow the field of candidates to two finalists who would compete in the general election. The political parties disagreed, complaining that because the top-two primary allowed candidates to declare a "party preference" (even if the party they preferred did not approve of them), the winners would appear to be party nominees.

Initiative 872

Despite the parties' opposition, the 2004 Legislature passed a bill that would have implemented the top-two primary system. However, Governor Gary Locke (b. 1950) partially vetoed the legislation, leaving in place a version of the open primary in which voters were required to select a single party's ballot from which to choose primary candidates. As with the blanket primary, the leading vote-getter from each party for a particular position advanced to the general election. The pick-a-party system was first used in the September 2004 primary, eliciting numerous complaints from voters used to being able to select among candidates from different parties.

Even before the Legislature's action and governor's veto, the Washington State Grange had filed Initiative 872 to enact the top-two system by popular vote. I-872 appeared on the November 2004 ballot, winning almost 60 percent of the vote. Before the new system could be implemented in 2005, the Republican Party filed suit and won an injunction preventing its use. The Democratic and Libertarian parties joined the lawsuit on the Republicans' side, and the Grange intervened to defend the top-two system along with the state attorney general. After three years of litigation, in early 2008 the United States Supreme Court reversed the lower courts and allowed the top-two primary enacted by I-872 to proceed.

August Primary

The 2008 primary was held on August 19, 2008, a first for statewide primary races. Washington's primary elections were previously held in September, but starting in 2007 (an off-year election with no statewide races) the date was moved up a month due to concerns that the September date did not allow enough time before the general election to determine a winner in close races. (Delays in ballot counting had increased as more Washington counties moved to all-mail voting, since state law only required ballots to be postmarked on election day, meaning that officials did not even have all ballots to count until some days later.)

There were no tight races, delays, or surprises in the major races on the August 19 primary ballot. In all the partisan statewide races and those for the U.S. House of Representatives, the top vote-getters were one Democrat and one Republican, so those results were no different than they would have been under previous systems where the leading candidate of each party advanced.

November Novelty

The top-two primary did produce some novel results in state legislative contests. In six races for the state House of Representatives and two for the state Senate, the two top vote-getters had the same party preference, resulting in two candidates identified with the same party facing off in the November general election. In five of those races all candidates in the primary had expressed the same party preference (Republicans in House races in districts 7, 8, and 12, and Democrats in Senate races in Districts 11 and 22). If the pick-a-party system (or the blanket primary) had been in effect, the leading vote-getter in those races would have been unopposed in the general election, but in 2008 each had to face the second-place finisher in November. All five top primary finishers went on to win election.

In three House races in Democratic-leaning areas of Tacoma and Seattle (Districts 27, 36, and 46), Republicans as well as Democrats ran in the primary, but the top two finishers in each case identified as Democrats. In Tacoma, incumbent Democratic Representative Dennis Flannigan found himself facing fellow Democrat Jessica Smeall in the final; Flannigan prevailed in November. The two highest-profile one-party November races came in heavily Democratic Seattle districts that, under the prior systems, rarely produced competitive general election races. The top-two system changed that. In races for open seats Democrats Reuven Carlyle (b. 1965) and John Burbank in the 36th District and Scott White (1970-2011) and Gerry Pollett in the 46th faced off in spirited general-election campaigns, which Carlyle and White won.

Sources: "August 19, 2008 Top 2 Primary," State of Washington, Office of the Secretary of State website accessed February 10, 2009 (http://vote.wa.gov/Elections/WEI/?ElectionID=25); "November 4, 2008 General Election," State of Washington, Office of the Secretary of State website accessed February 10, 2009 (http://vote.wa.gov/Elections/WEI/?ElectionID=26); Amy Rolph, "Carlyle, White Cruise in Legislative Contests," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 5, 2008, p. A-15; Washington State Grange v. Washington State Republican Party, ___ U.S. ___, 128 S.Ct. 1184, 170 L.Ed.2d 151 (2008); "News Tidbits for Political Junkies, from David Ammons," The News Tribune Political Buzz website accessed February 12, 2009 (http://blogs.thenewstribune.com/politics/ 2008/08/21/news_tidbits_for_political_junkies_from_); HistoryLink.org, The Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "A Brief History of Primary Election Rules in Washington State" (by Sam Reed, Secretary of State, and Staff) http://www.historylink.org (accessed February 10, 2009).
Note: This essay was updated on October 21, 2011.

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