Welcome reform of primary election

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An election-related bill that rates somewhere between housekeeping and housecleaning has won overwhelming support from both chambers of the Washington Legislature. The measure would bring welcome consistency and clarity in the conduct of nonpartisan elections in this state.

Voters know the concept of primary elections, which narrow the field of candidates to two for the general election. In primaries with only two candidates, both advance to the general election, but the “beauty contest” vote helps the candidates gauge their campaigns and serves as a harbinger for November’s vote.

This setup applies to all partisan elections, and traditionally the point of the primary was for each of the political parties to winnow their candidates for a one-on-one faceoff in November. In Washington state, this has evolved into our present “Top Two” primary, whose name spells out its purpose: The top two voter-getters now advance regardless of party.

But for some — not all — nonpartisan races, a candidate who wins more than 50 percent in the primary wins the election outright; it’s over and done with in the primary. So in any race involving two candidates, the final vote comes in the primary, and it works out that way in many races with more than two hopefuls.

This law now applies to state Supreme Court, Appeals Court, the office of state school superintendent and Superior Court elections. The law doesn’t apply to other nonpartisan races like District Court or city council races. That in itself sows confusion.

The primary-picks-the-winner setup also leaves important statewide races to be decided by low-information, low-turnout elections that are now conducted in August, when many voters are focused on recreational matters and not civic affairs. In 2012, budget issues forced the Secretary of State’s office to suspend printing and mailing its primary voting guide, a key source of information for many voters, and there is no guarantee that funding will be restored for future years.

In principle, the primary electorate should not determine the outcome of a general election. Even with the Top Two system, the primary by nature draws those most involved in the political parties, whose interests are less and less aligned with those of mainstream voters. The primary electorate tends toward the party extremes, not the voters who traditionally decide general elections in Washington.

The bill, HB 1474, would rectify that. If signed by Gov. Jay Inslee, the law would change so that the two candidates who get the most primary votes for Supreme Court, Appeals Court, Superior Court and the nonpartisan office of state school superintendent will advance to the general election in November.

It passed the House 97-0 and the Senate 37-9. The measure has the strong backing of Secretary of State Kim Wyman, and it deserves Inslee’s signature.

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