If Tuesday's election is a "top-two" primary, then why are races with only one or two candidates on the ballot?
It's not a race if nobody loses.
All ballots mailed to Whatcom County voters earlier this month have some choices that will decide nothing. None of the votes counted in the state Senate race in the north county, for example, will go toward a final tally of who wins that seat - incumbent Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, or challenger and Democrat Seth Fleetwood.
Three of the four races in the county for the state House have only two candidates or, in the case of Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, just one. The same names will appear again on the November ballot, and voters will be asked to decide again, only this time for real.
In races with three or more candidates, including Public Utility District commissioner and two seats in the U.S. Congress, the ballots that must be returned by Tuesday, Aug. 5, do matter. The top two vote-getters will advance to face each other in the Nov. 4 general election.
Washington's top-two primary began in 2008, after a U.S. Supreme Court victory and strong public support for a system that put voters' preferences ahead of party choice. Rather than the party faithful picking the two candidates who will appear in the general election, the voters pick the top two regardless of the candidates' party affiliations. Two members of the same party, or someone who identifies with a minor party, can advance.
But remnants of the old party-based system still remain, said Dave Ammons, communications director for the Secretary of State's office in Olympia. That includes the requirement that all partisan races appear on the primary ballot.
"The political environment hasn't entirely adjusted to the way we vote now," Ammons said. "In terms of the partisan races, it remains as it has for a long time. It's essentially a dry run."
Ammons put it another way: "It's a taxpayer-provided poll, if you will."
A typical mid-term primary election will draw about 40 percent of registered voters. That's a good sample size for the general election, in which voter turnout for the past two midterms, in 2006 and 2010, was 65 percent and 71 percent, respectively.
In two-person races for the state Legislature since 2008, the primary has been a strong predictor of who would win the general election. In three election cycles (2008, 2010 and 2012), the state legislative primaries had 194 races with two candidates. Of those, the winner went on to win the general election 190 times.
The primary skews conservative, however, said Mike Estes, chairman of the Whatcom Democrats. He said older, more conservative voters are more likely to vote in the primary.
"We know not to take the primary as discouragement, but we know what work we have to do to have success in the general," Estes said.
If there was ever a consequential top-two primary in Whatcom County with only two candidates, it was in 2010, when current Rep. Vincent Buys, R-Lynden, challenged then-incumbent Kelli Linville, D-Bellingham.
Buys took even his own party by surprise when he won the head-to-head primary against Linville by almost 4 percentage points.
"I was considered as not very viable in that race because I was against a heavy opponent," Buys said. After the primary, the House Republican Organizational Committee, the fundraising arm of the House Republicans, funneled more money into Buys' campaign.
"They purchased and created my TV ad," Buys said. "It can have a huge impact."
After raising less than $16,000 for the primary, Buys took in another $99,000 for the general election. The final result was closer, but Buys still beat Linville, the current Bellingham mayor, by a quarter of a percentage point.
"It was the primary that got me through in 2010," Buys said.
Despite the importance of two-person primaries for the parties, county and state elections officials would like to see those races removed from the August ballot. With fewer ballots to count and less paper to purchase, officials say they could do their work more efficiently and at lower cost.
"That hasn't gotten a very positive reception from the Legislature," said Debbie Adelstein, Whatcom County auditor. "For the people who are in the partisan races and the parties ... they use (the primary) as a testing ground."
They also use the primary as a platform for fundraising, elections officials said. With two elections, candidates can make two pushes for donations.
"The contribution limits are based on the number of times the candidate appears on the ballot," said Katie Blinn, director of legislative policy for the Secretary of State.
"Legislators who are not in competitive races, they can still raise a lot of money, and that money gets circulated back into races that are competitive through the caucus committees," Blinn said.
For Whatcom Democrats, fundraising isn't a big incentive to keep two-person races in the primary, Estes said.
"I don't see that the key to winning campaigns is getting every donor to double up to (the maximum $1,900)," Estes said. "A larger number of small donors is something we want to focus on."
Instead, the Democratic chairman said, the summertime election is an opportunity to crank up the campaign machinery early.
"We're doing a very active get-out-the-vote campaign," Estes said of the party's current activity. The Democrats are focusing on the 42nd Legislative District, which covers north Bellingham and the north county, because Democrats are challenging for all three positions - currently held by Republicans.
This time of year, with children out of school and vacations in the works, voters aren't thinking about politics, Estes said.
"In summer, voters are largely checked out," he said. "It's not near the level of interest that you'd see in November."
"We're calling voters, reminding them elections are going on," Estes said.
Reach Ralph Schwartz at email@example.com or 360-715-2289. Read his Politics blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or get updates on Twitter at @bhampolitics.