The following is a press release from David Ammons, communications director for the state secretary of state.
The Washington state Democrats and Republicans on Thursday filed a joint lawsuit in Thurston County Superior Court challenging the state’s halting of publicly funded election of party precinct committee officers. The case was set for hearing at 9 a.m. on March 23.
The parties asked the court to set aside new regulations by the Secretary of State’s Elections Division that ends the practice of PCO elections being included on the state Top 2 Primary ballot. The party organizations and their chairmen, Dwight Pelz and Kirby Wilbur, respectively, asked that the state be ordered to continue conducting the PCO elections.
Secretary of State Sam Reed said the lawsuit is surprising, since the parties themselves had a federal judge declare the state’s current PCO election system unconstitutional and the state currently has no constitutionally valid system of running the election.
That development occurred earlier this year as part of the parties’ ongoing effort to overturn the voter-approved Top 2 Primary, which is a nonpartisan winnowing election that allows voters to choose their favorite for each office, with the two biggest vote-getters advancing to the General Election, without regard for party preference.
In Washington, voters do not register by party. The 2012 Top 2 Primary is Aug. 7, with mail ballots going out about three weeks ahead of that date. There are about 6,500 precincts, so potentially 13,000 contests. Many of the slots, though, go unfilled or have only one candidate.
In a letter to the two chairmen earlier this month, Reed sketched in the background:
“In amended complaints filed in January 2010, both parties asked the U.S. District Court to strike down Washington’s PCO election system as unconstitutional. Both complaints included identical wording, asking the Court to permanently restrain the State from “conducting elections of officers of the Party, directly or indirectly, including Precinct Committee Officers, in any manner that is not approved by the Party …”
“You were able to make this argument, that the PCO election system violated your Freedom of Association, because you are private associations. Such a claim cannot be made by a public entity or public office. Ironically, the State defended Washington’s PCO election system, arguing to keep PCO elections on the public ballot. This topic was a line of questioning during the depositions by the party attorneys. My office defended the election of party officials on the public ballot, while the parties fought to have that system declared unconstitutional.
“You asked the court to require that PCO elections be conducted in a particular manner, such as
require each voter to sign a party oath and disclose the names of those voters to you. The
Court declined, “Finally, the Court rejects the political parties’ request that the Court enter an
injunction ordering that Washington implement its PCO elections in a particular manner.” The
Court listed some options for future PCO election systems, and concluded, “Or Washington may
decide to stop conducting public elections of PCOs. Given the wide range of options, the Court
declines to order an injunction imposing a particular form of election.”
“You asked the Court to strike down Washington’s PCO election system and the Court agreed.
That system was established in WAC. Because that system has been declared unconstitutional, those WACs are now being repealed.”
The only remaining other PCO election laws are based on the Pick-a-Party Primary the state had while the Top 2 system (adopted by the voters in 2004 as a Grange initiative) was being challenged by the parties, Reed said. The Top 2 Primary was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court and has been used since 2008. U.S. District Judge John Coughenour upheld the state’s implementation in January; the parties are appealing.
The PCO issue was a side issue in the main case.
In their complaint Thursday, the parties said the state is misreading the court’s ruling.
“The parties most assuredly never sought, much less obtained, a ruling invalidating Precinct Committee Officer elections in their entirety,” the parties said.
They did not describe a preferred system of electing as part of an election that does not provide for a voter to declare a party preference, but repeatedly said the Coughenour decision did not foreclose or invalidate the notion of the state continuing to run the PCO elections for the parties.
Reed noted that lawmakers may create a new PCO election system.
“I realize that the 2012 Legislature may pass legislation authorizing you to elect PCOs in a new government-regulated election. But currently, as private associations, each party is free to manage its internal affairs and the selection of its internal officers without interference from state law or regulation.
“I do note that county election offices do not conduct elections for other private associations, such as Rotary clubs, unions, or trade associations. And almost all other jurisdictions, such a school districts and fire districts (which provide vital public services and are suffering financially), are required to pay their share of election costs; the State is the only other entity that is exemp from paying its share of regular election costs.”
Reed again called on the parties to stop litigating, a costly process for both them and for the taxpayers.
Here are links to the parties’ pleadings in which this is raised: