Washington’s presidential primary could be relevant despite its May date, observers say

Election officials in Washington are already gearing up for next year’s presidential primary, even if the state’s two major political parties can’t agree whether or not the election matters.

County elections staff started training this week for what will be the first presidential primary to be held in Washington state since 2008.

At least some observers say recent developments — including Republicans’ decision to change how they handle the primary results — could make Washington’s May 24 primary election more relevant this year, despite it being held late in the primary election cycle.

Republicans in Washington state decided earlier this month to use the primary results as their sole means of awarding delegates to candidates at next year’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

But while Republicans cast the primary as a crucial opportunity for voters to help choose the party’s nominee for president, Democrats insist it is a waste of time and money.

The Washington state Democrats voted in April to ignore the primary results and use party caucus meetings to allocate their delegates instead.

Democrats also blocked Republicans’ attempts to move up the state’s primary to March 8, a date that Republicans had argued would draw more presidential candidates to Washington state on the campaign trail.

After that plan failed, Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman said she was ready last month to ask Gov. Jay Inslee to call a special session of the Legislature and urge lawmakers to cancel the 2016 primary, which is projected to cost taxpayers $11.5 million. Lawmakers similarly canceled the presidential primary in 2012 to save money.

But Wyman has since changed her tune, saying she thinks the primary is important regardless of whether Democrats use it to help choose their nominee or whether it is held in May or March.

“Come next spring, voters will expect to be able to vote on the candidates,” Wyman said last week. “This is about giving the voters a voice.”

Wyman had argued that an earlier primary would make the state more influential in the presidential contest, as many candidates in past years had already dropped out of the race by May.

But Democrats on a bipartisan scheduling committee said moving the primary to March 8 would have confused Democratic voters whose party caucus meetings are scheduled a few weeks later.

“It’d be like, ‘oh, wait, why do I have to go to a caucus? I just voted in a primary three weeks ago.’ Well, no, that primary was meaningless,” said Jamal Raad, spokesman for the Washington state Democrats.

This week, the state Republican Party continued to push for the earlier primary date, which would require one Democrat serving on the bipartisan Presidential Primary Date Selection committee to change his or her vote.

Democrats, meanwhile, said they’d like to see the Legislature reconvene in January and cancel the 2016 primary, which Raad said would save the state money on “a meaningless beauty contest.”

Wyman said neither option is likely at this point. The deadline for changing the date of the primary is Oct. 1, and Wyman said she won’t reconvene the date-setting committee unless Democrats indicate they’ve had a change of heart.

By January, county elections officials also will have already spent money to prepare for the election, so canceling it at that point would still have financial consequences, Wyman said.

Preparations for the May primary began this week, with dozens of county election administrators attending day-long trainings Monday through Wednesday in Lacey, Everett and Ephrata to learn about the election. Topics included what the ballots will look like, how voters will be required to declare their party affiliations, and how to respond when voters don’t fill out ballots properly.

“We’ve got quite a few new election administrators and some election administrators who weren’t around for the 2008 presidential primary — me included,” said Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson, who attended Monday’s eight-hour training in Lacey. Anderson said the trainings should help ensure “everyone’s on the same page” regarding how the primary will work next year.

Todd Donovan, a professor of political science at Western Washington University, said that even though next year’s primary in Washington remains set for May, it still is poised to be more relevant than a May primary would have been in the past.

Donovan said that’s partly due to changes by the Republican party that ensure the earliest state primaries won’t award all of a state’s delegates to the highest vote-getter, but instead will distribute them among candidates based on how many votes they receive.

Other factors that Donovan said could boost the significance of Washington’s May primary include that other state primaries are occurring later in 2016, and that there are far more candidates than usual vying for the Republican nomination.

Following Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s withdrawal from the race Monday, 14 Republicans remained contenders for their party’s presidential nod.

“We’ve never seen this many candidates,” Donovan said. “It just takes two or three of them to still be battling it out for them to come out here and campaign.

“You just need two or three candidates surviving into May and it will be relevant.”