Wednesday, January 30, 2019

An Update on March Presidential Primary Bills in Washington: One Bill Through Committee

Two weeks ago legislation was introduced in the Washington state Senate to shift up the date of the presidential primary in the state from May to the second Tuesday in March.1

This is not a new idea, and, in fact, was hashed out in the legislature in both 2015 and 2017-18. But in neither session did the legislation move past an affirmative vote in the originating chamber. That may or may not be the case in 2019.

The difference this time is that while Democrats in the Evergreen state enjoyed unified control of state government (in the last session at least), the urgency to move was lacking. That urgency is now present in two forms. First, the year before a presidential election is typically when most states make calendar moves. The date of a presidential primary is on more legislators' minds in 2019 than in 2017, in other words.

But another factor is that Washington Democrats have conducted, without exception, caucuses in lieu of a primary throughout the post-reform era. Democratic legislators, then, have never been particularly motivated to move a contest -- the presidential primary -- that the state Democratic Party was not going to use for the purposes of delegate allocation. However, following a 2016 cycle that saw enthusiastic caucusgoers in Washington and elsewhere overwhelm the party-run operations, some state parties and state legislatures have begun to reexamine the process. Externally, there has also been a push at the national party level on the Democratic side to encourage state government-run primaries over state party-run caucuses.

And the confluence of those factors has perhaps created a perfect storm in Washington. State legislative Democrats are motivated to establish a primary system that will entice the Democratic Party in the state to opt for the primary in 2020 over the caucuses the party has traditionally used.

So how have the bills been received in committee?

There is a partisan dimension to this, and that remains the best lens through which to examine the effort to move the Washington presidential primary to March. But then again, the date is not up for dispute. Both bills call for moving the primary to same date in March. Other sections of the bills are what is animating the partisan differences.

This was borne out in the initial committee hearing on SB 5229 and SB 5273. While a representative of the Washington secretary of state's office talked up the earlier date and adding a third unaffilated voter list of candidates to the ballots mailed out to Washington primary voters, DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee (RBC) member and Washington Democratic Party parliamentarian, David McDonald chimed in that the measure had a handful of provisions that would make it less likely that the RBC would approve of a delegate selection plan using the primary. He cited the Republican bill's lack of a recount provision (especially in a crowded field) and an uncommitted option as reasons the RBC may reject a plan that included the primary, making it more likely that the state party would opt for a caucus again. In addition, McDonald cast doubt on how the RBC would approach a plan including a primary allowing unaffiliated voters to participate without having that information made public or automatically registering the voters with the party in the process.

[Those issues are all avoided in the Democratic bill.]

Holes, then, were poked in the Republican bill from the secretary of state. And that is where partisanship returns, or rather where partisan control more clearly enters the picture. Democrats have unified control of state government in the Evergreen state in 2019-20 and the State Government Committee if not the Democratic caucus in the state Senate seem motivated to move the Democratic bill, SB 5273. Originally that bill had as sponsors nearly all of the party leadership in the chamber. That sponsor list has expanded in the time since the bill was introduced to include over half of the Democratic caucus in the Senate.

Additionally, the Democratic bill, after a minor technical change altering the canvassing and certification process for the primary, passed the Senate State Government Committee with a do pass recommendation by a 5-2 vote. The two dissenting votes were two of the three Republicans on the committee. One recommended no passage, while the other voted to refer the measure to the Rules Committee without any recommendation.

What the last two weeks have brought is some clarity in terms of which version of the bill to move the Washington presidential primary to March would win out. Clearly the Democratic bill is going to be moved by a Democratic-controlled chamber. SB 5229, the Republican version, looks as if it will remain in committee not to see the light of day.

Another test comes when the House begins its consideration of those versions.

Washington State Legislation Would Again Try to Move Presidential Primary to March

Washington Senate Passes Democratic March Presidential Primary Bill

Senate-Passed Washington Presidential Primary Bill Passes House Committee Stage on Party Line Vote

Washington State House Passes March Presidential Primary Bill

1 Subsequent companion legislation, matching the two state Senate versions, has been introduced in the state House. HB 1262 mirrors the language of the bill that has the backing of Washington secretary of state, Kim Wyman (R) while HB 1310 is a replica of the bill Senate Democrats have put forth. Neither bill has had a hearing as of yet in the House committee to which they were referred.

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