[Ed. Note: Secret negotiations have resulted in striking down significant portions of Washington State Law regarding Political Parties. The ruling purportedly acts on legal issues we’ve been following at the Reagan Wing since 2008. At first blush, it would seem this activism could imperil the GOP & Democrat Party’s existence in the mid-term and effectively ends any hope of clean party elections. This two-part article provides a legal analysis, and then practical implications for Washington state’s PCOs.]
On August 17, 2010 thousands of citizens across the State were elected as Precinct Committee Officers of their respective precincts. But their offices have now been eliminated.
On Tuesday Jan. 11th Judge John C. Coughenour of the U.S. District Court in Seattle issued a 24-page ruling striking down Washington’s 103 year-old PCO system. Incidentally, the Court’s decision also denied the political parties “as-applied” challenge to the constitutionality of initiative 872 (Top-two primary), holding that the political parties failed to present sufficient evidence of “voter confusion” to sustain their as-applied constitutional challenge. (Secretary Reed’s press release on the ruling is available here). Given that every PCO position throughout the State has been eliminated, as a consequence it appears that every County Central Committee, Legislative District Committee and State Committee in Washington State has also been eliminated.
In 1907 the Washington State Legislature enacted the first “primary law” in the State’s history. The law included several sections specifically creating political party organizations, which were to be governed by political party precinct committeemen at the precinct level. The act provided, in relevant part, as follows:
“At the September primary each voter may write in the space left on the ticket for that purpose the name of the qualified elector to the precinct for member of the party county committee. The one having the highest number of votes shall be such committeeman of such party for such precinct. The party committee of each county shall consist of the precinct committeeman from the several precincts of such county. The present party organization both state and county of the several parties shall continue until their successors are elected under the provisions of this act. Each political party organization shall have the power to make its own rules and regulations, call conventions, elect delegates to conventions, state and national, fill vacancies on the ticket, provide for the nomination of presidential electors, and perform all other functions inherent to such organizations the same as though this act had not been passed...”
See Laws of 1907, Ch. 209, § 22. (The current statutory provisions governing political parties are set forth in Ch. 29A.80 RCW)
As part of their decade-old challenge to the top-two primary, the political parties argued to Judge Coughenour that the State’s method of selecting PCOs under the top-two primary was unconstitutional because anyone may vote for precinct committee officer without having to declare their “membership” in the PCO candidate’s party. Judge Coughenour agreed, finding that:
“…Washington’s PCO election…infringes on the political parties’ freedom to identify the people who constitute their associations. See Boy Scouts of Am. v. Dale, 530 U.S. 640, 648 (2000) (“[F]reedom of association plainly presupposes a freedom not to associate.” (quoting Roberts v. U.S. Jaycees, 468 U.S. 609, 622 (1984))). The system allows the electorate to participate in the selection of the political parties’ officers even though the parties may not prefer to associate with voters who consider themselves members in a fleeting moment in a voting booth. At worst, a voter who has for years expressly affiliated with a rival party may attempt to sabotage the other parties’ election by silently declaring for a fraction of a minute cross-party affiliation. The system allows non–party members to vote for officers of the political parties, and the First Amendment does not permit Washington to impose that type of membership when the parties have not so consented.”
01/11/11 Order at pp. 21-22, Dkt. No. 308, Washington State Republican Party v. Washington State Grange, No. 2:05-cv-00927-JCC (W.D. Wash.)(footnote omitted). The court went on to observe that (based on their prior filings) the Political Parties would seem be satisfied with three alternative methods of PCO election:
(1) everyone who votes for PCO of a particular party signs a loyalty oath to that party;
(2) Each of the 39 County Auditors distribute additional sets of ballots with only one political party’s PCO candidates per ballot;
(3) voters check a box indicating affiliation with the particular party.
01/11/11 Order at p. 22. For the past 103 years Washington taxpayers have generously funded the elections of political party precinct committee officers of the major political parties. But that system has now been eliminated. Given that our state constitution explicitly prohibits expending public funds for private purposes (see Washington Constitution, Article VIII, §§ 5, 7), the legislature has determined that such expenditures are in the public interest. In light of the current economic climate, it is difficult to envision the legislature enacting ANY alternative system of PCO elections that would be more costly than the present system. However, it appears that the constitutional grievances of the Political Party leaders would be difficult, if not impossible, to resolve without spending additional funds.
Sam Reed’s office issued the following statement about this issue:
“We did not request the ruling against the state conducting the party precinct committee officer elections; the parties themselves did. Nonetheless, they have won on this point, and it appears we are out of the business of running PCO elections unless the Legislature makes a different policy choice, such as combining the elections with the partisan presidential primaries in the future, possibly repaying the costs of taxpayers running the election.”
Based upon this statement, it seems quite unlikely that the State and/or the Grange will appeal the portion of the ruling striking down the PCO system. As a result, it appears that each of the 39 County Central Committees of both parties’ throughout Washington State no longer exist. And, it necessary follows that the entire State Committee of each political party likewise ceased to exist.
Luke Esser may have just become the beneficiary of the biggest Government Giveaway inWashington State history
What happens at the Embassy Suites on January 22? Practical consequences of the judicial decision.
by Doug Parris
Since 1907 ordinary Washington State Citizens have had direct access to substantive membership in major political parties. During that period, the leadership of Washington State political Parties have been required to undergo the inconvenience (not to say humiliation for those who think of themselves as royalty) of having to face election. If UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE John C. Coughenour has his way, that could shortly end.
Back in August, Seattle Times editorialist Kate Riley asked “Why do Taypayers pay for election of party officials?” It questioned the cost of electing the office of Precinct Committee Officer in State Primary Elections. In it she betrayed no depth of understanding of the nature of the parties and at the base of her reasoning lies an oft-repeated, but erroneous idea: that political parties are “private organizations.”
To begin to understand the nature of “major” political parties in Washington, ask yourself “who OWNS the Washington State Democratic Party?” And follow it up with this question: “How much could they sell it for?”
Real “private entities” have owners and can be bought and sold. Real private entities rule their own affairs with a broad range of discretion, like being able to have a female chair AND a female vice-chair. Like the power to fire an entry-level associate at will. Not so political Parties.
And real “private entities” do NOT have the broad discretion to engage in electoral politics without financial limits. They have personal or corporate limitations far different from the “Parties.” The Washington State Legislature has given special privileges to political parties and have made, in return, demands that they operate according to basic dictates at the foundation of democracy that do not regulate privately owned corporations.
It is in the nature of ownership and control that major political parties in Washington State are not “private entities” in any traditional sense. And what the Washington State Legislature did with them is, as far as I know, unique among “entities.”
Republicans and Democrats have been self-identified in Washington State, the Parties owned by their grassroots members as a matter of law. The grassroots, the “entry level participants,” hold all the power. And anyone who wants to, can become a member of a major political Party and wield that power by their own choice alone. Choosing to vote in a Precinct Committee Officer election makes you an owner. The Precinct Committee Officers elected by those self-appointed owners (Officers who are men and women that actually live in your precinct and must stand for election every two years), hold total control over the County Organizations. They can hire and fire County Party officials and make all the rules. And the county Party Officials thus chosen, hold the same, total control over the State Party Officials, NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND.
“Why do taxpayers pay for elections of party officials?” Because it puts them in total control of those Party officials, if they choose to use that power.
And that’s the only way that can happen.
In a matter of days, on the weekend of January 21st, there is an election scheduled for Chair and Vice-chair of the Washington State Republican Party at the end of a process established by laws Party insiders would rather not have to deal with. And we happen to know that our current leadership has been very troubled by that fact. Anyone who has to face election might be replaced. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to ignore those irritating grassroots activists and not be held accountable? What if Luke Esser (protected by his “Mainstream” insiders), not grassroots party activists, owned the Party? He could control who was nominated for every office. He could control who became National Committee representatives from Washington State. He could control delegate positions to the National Convention legally! And best of all, Luke and the current establishment would need do nothing to acquire the Party. Despite the untold millions of dollars invested in the Party for the last hundred years, the current establishment would own the Party simply because they were the ones that held it when Judge Coughenour, by the stroke of a pen, wiped out its entire system of accountability, effectively giving them ownership.