Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Political MAD

If there is one thing I took away from law school it is how horrible a tool the courts are for arriving at sustainable solutions to societal problems. I'm not saying there isn't a time and a place where the court's heavy hand is appropriate, most notably in situations where the relative power dynamic between the parties is lopsided (civil rights cases come to mind). What I'm saying is that between two parties of relative strength, better they compromise then kill eachother.

In our system the court is asked to narrow down a particular issue into a set of binary questions and then answer them, "yes" or "no." Because of doctrines of judicial restraint, courts try to reduce the set to as few questions as possible, which means that emerging out of nearly ever court case is a big winner and a total loser.

Enter onto the stage, the Washington State Democratic and Republican parties. For decades they operated within a state primary system called the blanket primary. Voters of the state were allowed to vote for whatever candidate they wanted in the primary, party affiliation be damned! There were the occasional claims of party cross over, where Democrates were said to vote for weaker Republican candidates to make it easier to win in the general, but no credible evidence ever emerged in support and several UW Professors spent their carriers demonstrating how the claims were nothing more than smoke and mirrors.

But then California adopted the Washington State system and suddenly the world came crashing down. Parties in California sued and eventually the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the system as an infringement on 1st Amendment rights of association. Well, California had been using a closed primary for years, so it's really not that big of a deal. But the court victory inspired the Washington State Democratic party... "hey," they said, "we could exert more control over our candidates if we did what California did." And so they sued the state and got our long herald blanket primary system thrown out.

Enter the Grange, an interesting non-profit organization originally designed to protect rural interests. These days their primary activity seems to be to back initiative drives. The Grange was apparently a big supporter of the blanket primary and disliked the idea of strong party control. They went to our State legislature and got a law passed which called for a "top-two" primary, where voters chose whoever they wanted and the top two vote getters (regardless of party affiliation) would go onto the general election. The law also contained provisions for a close primary should, I don't know, the governor veto the top-two provisions... which he did.

Not to be deterred, the Grange then launched an initiative to reinstate the top-two system. I-872 received nearly 60% of the vote but was quickly enjoined by the State political parties. The law never went into effect.

Let us pause for a moment and consider the situation. For decades the political parties have operated with the blanket primary without any demonstrable issues. As an added bonus, Washington state politics has never been dominated by partisan corruption, since you can actually get to the general election without the support of the party establishment. The Washington State legislature passed laws reinforcing partisan-independence and voters did the same. Clearly the State of Washington isn't interested in partisan politics corrupting a good thing. So why, why, are the parties pushing this thing? Can't they see what's around the corner?

Well, apparently not, because last year the got the law ruled unconstitutional by a district judge and just this week the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals concured. For those who remember the title of this post, consider that fateful decision to be the first nuclear weapon launch.

Now for the return salvo. The Grange is mulling over three options. The first two are to go back to the courts and try to win on rehearing or appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The courts seem inclined to protect partisan interests over the state's interest, so that seems like a losing approach, which is why the third option is the most likely option. According to the Seattle Times the Grange will lobby the State Legislature this year to declare our primaries entirely non-partisan!

Under the old system the parties at least had an affiliation with the candidate, but with this approach the parties are simply irrelevant. Personally, I would support such a move. I preferred the old system, which was a good balance between the state's interest and the parties' interests. But, since the parties felt compelled to go to the courts and have a winner declared in the long stalemate, the state is left with no choice. You push someone against a wall and they will push back.

If they continue to push, I wouldn't be surprised if the legislature itself was declared non-partisan like the judiciary and most city councils. It's time for the parties to wise up... I don't know what kind of people are running those organizations, but this isn't the East Coast and we aren't interested in political bosses running things from smoke-filled rooms.

Why couldn't they just live with the compromise that had worked for so long?


srcastic said...

Kudos, and well said. Unfortunately, both of the major parties are unified in opposition to the will of the people, and the will of the voters.

I can't help but to recall Sam Reed's dedication to the will of the voters on this issue - he is one of the few.

Sean Kellogg said...

That's why I keep voting for him... even if he wasn't the greatest dinner conversationalist that one time.