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William & Mary Law School | Election Law Society

Presidential primary suspended: Why doesn’t it matter?

by Eli Mackey

Washington State’s 2012 Presidential Primary is among the recent victims sacrificed at the altar of budgetary woes. The financial problems left in this listless economy granted no immunity to matters of seemingly great civic importance. Washington State has become the first in the nation to suspend its 2012 Presidential Primary election as a result of budgetary constraints.  Instead, Washington will rely on caucuses to determine which delegates to send to the convention. The caucuses, which measure the degree of support for a given candidate from a gathering of community members to determine the proportion of delegates, will be sponsored by the Republican and Democratic parties. The move is said to save nearly ten million dollars from Washington State’s budget.

While Secretary of State, Sam Reed, notes that this is a one-time resolution in response to the 5.2 billion dollar budget gap, he indicated that the primary has more than ten times the turnout than the caucuses. For example, in 2008 the primary drew approximately 1.4 million people while the caucuses included fewer than 100,000. This may be due in part to the fact that the primary system does not exclude overseas voters. Caucuses are typically attended by individuals closely affiliated with their respective parties. As a result, the caucus forum gives party activists greater voice in a candidate’s election than the common voter might otherwise have given a primary. The GOP’s 2012 caucus will be held on March 3, while the Democrats’, with no challenge to President Obama’s renomination, will be held on April 15.

Washington voters passed an initiative establishing the primary system in 1989 reflecting the desire of ordinary people to be more engaged in the presidential electoral process. However, the delegate allocation has traditionally been left to caucus results. Even with the primary, the Democratic Party issues its delegates based on caucus results, while the Republican Party has allocated half of their delegates based on primary results with the other half on caucus results. Thus, some have rightfully pointed out that the primary system in Washington is largely symbolic as its results have only a partial impact. Given Washington State’s financial posture and the reality that the primary system has been largely ceremonial since its institution, it seems that it was a no–brainer for this legislation to be signed into law by the Democratic governor, Christine Gregoire.

However, the primary system ensures that most voters can participate in the nomination of their desired candidate regardless of whether they are informed, overseas, or just too preoccupied to go caucus. It is unfortunate that the political parties have been slow to respond to the desire of the people to be more actively involved in the choosing of their preferred presidential candidates. Even at the time of the primary’s adoption in 1989 the legislature stated in the law that “[t]he…presidential nominating caucus system in Washington State is unnecessarily restrictive of voter participation in that it discriminates against the elderly, the infirm, women, the disabled, evening workers, and others who are unable to attend caucuses and therefore unable to fully participate in this most important quadrennial event that occurs in our democratic system of government.” Dependence on the caucus system inherently gives greater deference to those who are more adamantly beholden to a specific party’s platform, than to the everyday voter.

Some may view such a result as favorable. The caucus system allows party leaders to exert more influence over the electorate. Party leaders may be said to be more in touch with the candidates, issues, and political climate than the mere primary voter. As such, the caucus system affords those who retain a superior depth of knowledge and familiarity with the issues greater weight in the process which is ultimately reflected in the quality of the candidates chosen. However, some assert that the caucus process leaves decisions in the hands of those who are the most politically polarized. Furthermore, voters may become disenchanted with a process that does not recognize the value of their vote. It is a benefit to society when more people from diverse backgrounds, representing discrete interests are involved with a decision that affects the masses.

The financial realities in Washington are not unique and reflect a pervasive phenomenon across the country. Given the limited impact of the primary process in Washington, perhaps its suspension may be of no real consequence in the face of economic concerns. However, this arguably should be a time to recognize the significance that the primary could play in Washington. With the primary due to return in 2016, Secretary Reed has indicated his desire to institute legislation requiring the political parties to use the results of the primary to set their national delegates in the future. The parties’ lack of recognition of the primary and the ease with which it may be suspended is inconsistent with the direct will of the people in instituting it in the first place through initiative. Sure, the ten- million–dollar savings arguably exceeds the marginal value the primary provides. After all, Secretary Reed described the primary as no more than a “beauty contest.” Consequently, it was easy to suspend because it doesn’t really matter. The important question is, shouldn’t it?

Eli Mackey is a third-year law student at William & Mary.


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1 Comment

  1. As a WA state resident and active duty military member stationed out of state, I am disappointed in the position the state legislature took as I cannot attend a local caucus. The State’s position is antithetical to a military member’s reasonable access to voting mechanisms. I would be curious, from a legal standpoint, whether Washington’s primary suspension violates any Federal statues on voting access?

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