Democrats unveil Wash state election reform measures

By Rachel La Corte
Published January 18th 2007 in Seattle Post Intelligencer
OLYMPIA, Wash. -- A group of Senate Democrats unveiled a number of election reform bills Thursday, including a measure to have the public pay for state Court of Appeals and Supreme Court campaigns.

The financing measure, sponsored by newly elected Sen. Eric Oemig, D-Kirkland, was in response to the more than $4 million spent on last year's three state Supreme Court races.

Gov. Chris Gregoire requested the bill and included $4.4 million in her state budget proposal for a pilot project, saying that something has to be done about excessive spending in judicial campaigns.

"This is a responsible approach to examining this issue and bringing it into the public dialogue," Oemig said. "You want to make sure our campaigns and our elections and all that spending is truly representing the people."

The measure would create a voluntary program for public financing, limited to Supreme Court and Court of Appeals candidates.

Justice Richard Sanders, who is opposed to public financing, said that even though the program is voluntary, "You're being coerced into participating."

"If you don't, then however successful you are in raising money, the government is going to write a check to your opponent," he said.

A hearing on the campaign finance bill is set for next Thursday afternoon. A companion bill is expected in the House, and another bill that pushes for public financing of all legislative and statewide offices was introduced in the House Wednesday.

A handful of states, including Arizona, have public financing for statewide and legislative races. North Carolina is the only state that has public financing for appellate court candidates, a system put in place two years ago after former Chief Justice Henry Frye spent a record $907,000 in a failed re-election bid in 2000.

Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn and ranking Republican on the Senate Government Operations & Elections Committee, said public financing was the wrong way to go.

"Part of winning an election is being able to bring a team together, the people who are going to support you," she said. "Yes, you raise money. That's part of the campaign. If you have public financing of campaigns, what you're doing is inflating the ability of a nonqualified candidate. You're putting them in the mix when they really shouldn't be there."

Oemig disagreed, saying that with public financing, "You get fair, equitable representation in the campaign."

The measure does not address recommendations made by the Public Disclosure Commission, which included prohibiting groups such as the Building Industry Association of Washington and the Service Employees International Union from giving their general funds directly to political action committees that support or oppose candidates.

Oemig was joined by Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, and Sen. Darlene Fairley, D-Lake Forest Park and chairwoman of the Government Operations & Elections Committee.

Fairley is sponsoring a bill that would make sure that voters who fail to check a party box on their primary election ballot still have their votes counted, a measure requested by Secretary of State Sam Reed.

Nearly 100,000 votes were invalidated in the state's partisan races in last September's primary because voters failed to indicate if they wanted to vote as a Democrat or Republican, as required by law.

"We want to make it easier for people to vote and for their vote to count, not make it harder," Fairley said.

Kohl-Welles is pushing a measure that would let nonpartisan races, where there are only two candidates, skip the primary and go straight to the general election. Presently, Supreme Court races and other judicial races can be decided in the primary, and the winner moves unopposed to the general.

"More people vote in the general election and I believe that the decision should be made by the highest amount of people possible, which does not happen in the primary," she said.

Taping the news conference from the back of room with his Web cam was Krist Novoselic, co-founder of the rock group Nirvana. Novoselic is an advocate of instant runoff voting, another measure Oemig said he supports, though he wasn't sure a bill to allow such voting would be filed this session.

"A lot of people are frustrated and not participating so we need to make more opportunities for participation," Oemig said.

The lawmakers also are backing a resolution to Congress to move Veteran's Day to the first Tuesday in November on even years, so that it can also serve as Election Day. Oemig said that more people would have time to vote or volunteer at the polls, and that it would "honor the freedoms that veterans have helped claim for us."


The public financing bill for judicial races is Senate Bill 5226; the primary partisan check box measure is Senate Bill 5408; the nonpartisan race bill is Senate Bill 5196; the measure merging Veterans Day with Election Day is Senate Joint Memorial 8002. The public financing bill for legislative and statewide offices is House Bill 1360.


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