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Home » Archives » March 2008 » US Supreme Court Rules Against The Political Parties

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03/19/2008: "US Supreme Court Rules Against The Political Parties"

“Even if voters could possibly misinterpret the designations, I–872 cannot be struck down in a facial challenge based on the mere possibility of voter confusion. … And without the specter of widespread voter confusion, respondents’ forced association and compelled speech arguments fall flat.”

In a 7 to 2 vote, and with sometimes strong language, the US Supreme Court has upheld Washington State’s Top Two Primary, known as I-872.

The citizens of Washington enjoyed the freedom to vote for the person, not the party, from 1936 to 2003. This privilege has been a fundamental part of a Washington states populist political culture that held the people, not the parties, ought to control the process of electing their leaders.

Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed said in an email that “I am thrilled to announce that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Top Two Primary, I-872! We plan to implement the Top Two in 2008.” Reed also took the opportunity to thank others in the state who fought to retain I-872, adding “I greatly appreciate the ongoing support of the elections community, the Grange, the Attorney General, and many legislators in this long effort to preserve greater choice for the voters.”

The two major political parties were less than pleased, as this will undermine their power and potential influence, since voters will not have to declare any party affiliation, and can vote for any candidate, regardless of the candidate’s political party preference. The Court rejected the political parties’ claims that this type of primary is unconstitutional.

Just as the voters of San Juan County were able to use a local initiative to overturn the County Council stormwater funding ordinance, the voters of Washington in 2004 voted for an initiative that created the so-called Top-Two plan, but it was blocked by court challenges. Challenges that have now in turn been blocked, stopped and struck down by the US Supreme Court.

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Secretary of State Sam Reed and Attorney General Rob McKenna today applauded the U.S. Supreme Court for upholding Washington’s Top-Two Primary. The victory follows years of court battles over the primary and the rights of voters to choose any candidate on the ballot.

“We took the people’s case to the nation’s highest court and the people won,” said Reed. “This is a victory for the voters of Washington because our democracy belongs to them.”

In the decision, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that overturning the Top-Two would be an “extraordinary and precipitous nullification of the will of the people."

On behalf of Reed and the State, Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna argued for the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision that struck down the Top-Two system. The case was McKenna’s second before the U.S. Supreme Court- and his second victory.

“Washington voters have a long tradition of independent voting,” McKenna said. “They told us they wanted the freedom to vote for the candidate of their choice regardless of party, and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with them.”

The State has been enjoined from using the Top-Two Primary since shortly after it was enacted. In 2004, the Top-Two Primary passed overwhelmingly as Initiative 872. Since then, Washington has conducted a pick-a-party primary, which requires voters to affiliate with one of the major political parties and limit their selections to that party’s slate of candidates.

In Washington et al v. Washington State Republican Party et al. and Washington State Grange v. Washington State Republican Party et al., the Court considered whether the Top-Two Primary is in fact a nominating process exclusively for members of political parities, or a winnowing process open to the public at large.

The Court concluded that the Top-Two Primary is not a nominating process, is not intended to pick each party’s nominee for the General Election. Rather, the purpose of a Top-Two Primary is to winnow the number of candidates to two, allowing voters to select the two most popular candidates to advance to the General Election. The two candidates with the greatest support advance to the General, regardless of party preference and regardless of whether they are a party’s nominee or preferred candidate.

Among other things, the case focused on the ownership of the party designations “Republican” and “Democrat”. Justices considered whether the candidates have the right to decide which political party they prefer, or if that decision should be left to party leaders. In essence, the court concluded political parties cannot prohibit candidates from expressing their own political leanings.

Washington will begin running a Top-Two Primary in the 2008 August Primary. The Top-Two Primary is overwhelmingly supported by the public and familiar to citizens who vote in nonpartisan elections in odd-numbered years.

Tom Bauschke
John Evans
Mary Kalbert
Ron Keeshan
Gordy Petersen
Janice Peterson
Bruce Sallan
Terra Tamai
Amy Wynn
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