Column: It’s already time to talk about how Washington selects its presidential nominees

Columnist Keith Schipper

We are just three months removed from the 2016 campaign, but that hasn’t stopped the Legislature from debating changes to how we select presidential nominees.

Currently, Democrats use a traditional caucus system that puts more of the power in the hands of grassroots activists, while Republicans use a presidential primary in late May in an effort to bring more voters into the nominating process.

Secretary of State Kim Wyman, who is coming off landslide victory following a fierce reelection battle against former Seattle City Councilmember Tina Podlodowski, is wasting no time to push through the reforms she campaigned on last year.

Under the current presidential primary system, voters sign an oath that they are either Republican or Democrat. Wyman’s proposal would allow voters to participate without declaring a party affiliation, and the parties would be allowed to either count those votes or leave it to the party faithful to decide on a nominee.

Her bill would also allow the secretary of state to remove candidates that have suspended their campaign, a problem our state ran into when Ben Carson remained on the ballot for the May 24 election despite having dropped out in March.

Finally, her proposal would move the presidential primary up from late May to the second Tuesday of March, which would make it ahead of battleground swing states Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.

All of Wyman’s reforms are worthy of debate, but the prospect of moving the primary up two months is exciting. While we were fortunate enough to have Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton barnstorm the state leading up to the Democrats’ caucus, we were left with one lone visit from Donald Trump who had sewn up the nomination a few weeks prior to the primary.

Imagine if Trump, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz had brought their battle to the Evergreen State to debate issues that affect our region like trade, agriculture, and health care. Washington, which has third most electoral votes west of the Mississippi (only California and Texas have more), would have had a significant say in the direction of our country.

The biggest obstacle to a meaningful primary isn’t moving the date up or any of the other proposals Wyman is pushing. It’s whether the state Democratic Party will scrap their caucus in favor of using a primary to choose a nominee.

After a disastrous caucus in 2016 left many annoyed with the process, state party Chairman Jaxon Ravens said the Democrats would explore using the presidential primary in 2020.

But then the 2016 election happened and Sanders supporters, many of who called for an end to the caucus system and were frustrated with the lack of Democrat victories, won leadership roles in their local party organizations. They went on to fire Ravens and elected Podlodowski as their chair last month.

So what is Podlodowski going to do?

She famously called on Wyman to cancel the presidential primary after Trump secured the Republican nomination, even though doing so would be illegal since only the Legislature has the power to cancel elections.

Will Podlodowski take the hard lessons Ravens learned last year to heart and get behind Wyman’s proposal? The support of a Podlodowski-led party would send a clear message to Democrats in Olympia that it’s time to make the change.

Our democracy is at its best when more, not less, participate, and holding it during the heart of the campaign would ensure our issues are at the forefront of the debate.

The Legislature should send a message that in 2020, we are going to have a seat at the table.

Keith Schipper is a Washington GOP strategist. Contact him at info@washingtonstatewire.com

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