Washington's "Top 2" primary has potential to shut out major political parties

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Washington's primary election is less than a week away, but do you know how candidates advance to the general election under this state's unusual system?

Washington's primary is not like the rest of the country. In a top-two primary system, whichever candidates get the most votes move on to the general, even if they're from the same party.

Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman said she thinks this type of primary is a good fit for Washington voters.

"(In) Eastern Washington, there are legislative districts that you're just probably never going to elect a Democrat," Wyman said. "And downtown Seattle, arguably you're never going to elect a Republican. So to put a Democrat on the ballot or a Republican on the ballot in those districts is really not a choice for voters.

"Putting a moderate Democrat and more liberal-leaning Democrat in downtown Seattle is probably more of a choice for a voter in Seattle and the same holds true on the other side of the mountain, so I think it gives voters more choice."

Voters chose this system.  Back in 2004, 60 percent said yes to a top-two primary.

In 2005, Washington state's Republican Party, Democratic Party and Libertarian Party all agreed on one thing: They didn't like it. The three parties sued in federal court, saying a top-two system violated political parties' right to free association.

A federal court agreed with the plaintiffs and it was upheld in an appeals court. But in 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned it.

That same year, Washington state hosted the first top-two primary in the country. A few years later, California followed suit.

What can go wrong? The 2012 primary race for California's 31st congressional district is a good example. The district has more registered Democrats than Republicans but it ended up with only Republicans on the November ballot.

That's because two Republicans split about half of the primary voters while Democrats were divided among four candidates. With two Republicans on the ballot, about a quarter of voters left their ballots blank.

"What kind of a terrible system is it that encourages voters to leave their general election ballot blank?" asked Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News. Winger had filed expert testimony in court opposing Washington's top-two system.

Along with the risk of what happened in California, he says the top-two race has historically shut out minority parties every time there's a Democrat and Republican running.

For all the controversy, Washingtonians do generally like this system. Many believe it takes power away from the parties and puts it in the hands of the voter.

It also makes the primary elections that much more important. Washington voters have until Tuesday, August 7, to make their voices heard.