Redistricting plan would improve primary election system

By John Burbank
Published June 15th 2005 in Tacoma News Tribune
Last month, the Republican Party filed suit to overturn the Top Two primary. The Democrats are supporting the Republicans’ suit. It makes you wonder, what do these two enemies hold so dear that brings them together?

Previously, a primary voter could work his way down a ballot and pick a Republican for one seat and a Democrat for another. It was a free-for-all process, in which some Republicans helped to choose the Democratic nominees and some Democrats helped to choose the Republicans.

The courts determined that the old primary process violated the parties’ ability to choose their own candidates. So last year, the Legislature and Gov. Gary Locke designed a new system. That was the one we all used last September, where you chose to vote either for Democrats or for Republicans, but not for both.

At the same time we figured out this new system, the Grange launched an initiative – I-872 – to put into place a different system. I-872 allows voters to skip around on the primary ballot, voting for whomever they want, choosing some Democratic candidates and some Republican candidates. The top two candidates with the most votes make it to the November election, no matter what party they represent. The result is that in some areas two Democrats could be on the general election ballot and no Republicans, or vice versa. And rarely, if ever, would a minor party candidate, such as a Libertarian, make it onto the ballot.

Neither I-872 nor the political parties’ suit to overturn it will undo the monopoly of candidate choice that many voters face. For example, Republicans get about 30 percent of the vote in the 27th district, the heart of Tacoma. So they are always shut out of representation in the state Legislature. Over in Tri-Cites, we know there are some Democrats, although they may be afraid to raise their heads. Whether or not they do, they will never gain representation in the Legislature under the top-two selection process or with the previous election system.

The election process has helped to balkanize our state’s representation over the past 15 years, and I-872 will just make this worse. Any time voters’ support for one party’s candidate drops below 40 percent, that party tends to give up. Just 15 years ago, Democrats could get elected regularly to the Legislature from Yakima, the Yakima Valley and the Tri-Cities. And Republicans were representing voters from Mukilteo and Des Moines. Now, Democrats have a hard time fielding good candidates east of the mountains, and Republicans stay away from the cities of Puget Sound. Last year, there were 22 legislative contests missing either a Democrat or a Republican – that’s almost one out of every five contests.

So the lawsuit against the top-two system should open the door to a more fundamental question: How do currently unrepresented and disenfranchised voters get a voice in Olympia?

One answer would be to throw out the current makeup of the House of Representatives of 49 districts with two representatives each and replace it with 33 districts with three representatives each elected by proportional representation. This would mean that if the candidates from a party got two-thirds of the total vote, they would get two out of the three seats in the district. The real difference would be if the minority party candidates got one-third of the total vote, then that party would get one seat. So two Republicans and one Democrat would likely represent an Eastern Washington district, and a liberal district in Tacoma would have two Democrats and one Republican.

Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature would be much more likely to come together across party lines to work for orchardists and farmworkers in Wenatchee and machinists and their employers in Everett. They would be forced to, because they would each have some representatives from these areas. All areas would have competitive elections, with Democrats working to hold onto one seat in some Eastern Washington districts and Republicans doing the same in urban Puget Sound.

This system would enable voters to select a third-party candidate who might, in some instances, actually get elected. So in Seattle, you could have a district represented by Democrat, Republican and Green Party members, and in Colville the people might elect a Republican, a Democrat and a Libertarian.

Let’s hope the court chews on this scenario when it considers the constitutionality of I-872. After all, in a democracy, elections should foment democratic choice and apportion broad representation.

John Burbank, executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute (, writes every other Wednesday. Write to him in care of the institute at 1900 Northlake Way, Suite 237, Seattle, WA 98103. His e-mail address is [email protected].