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After long lines — and a Sanders landslide — as Capitol Hill caucused in 2016, here’s how 2020 presidential picking will work

A scene like this line of voters waiting to get into the Century Ballroom during the 2016 caucus won’t be happening in 2020

Whatever else happens, Washington’s contribution to selecting a Democratic candidate to challenge Donald Trump won’t end up like Iowa.

In 2020 for the state’s presidential primary, both parties are ditching caucuses and awarding delegates based on the results of the primary. Contrasting with 2016, when republicans held a primary, and democrats held a primary (which didn’t matter) and a caucus (which did matter), everything should be much simpler.

Washington has also moved up its primary from May — at which point the candidates are generally decided —  to March 10, the week after Super Tuesday, when votes here will likely still be relevant. And decision time is fast approaching — the ballots will be sent out next week.

The format should be fairly simple. Every registered voter in King County will get the same ballot, explained Halei Watkins of King County Elections. In Washington, voters do not register as a member of a political party. Therefore for the primary, you will need to choose to vote in either the Republican or Democratic primary, and on the outside of the envelope indicate which one and certify that you won’t participate in the nominating process of any other political party. To be clear, this does not make you honor-bound to support anyone in the general election,  it just shows which party you may vote for in this primary.

Which party you choose will become part of the public record and the information will be available to anyone who asks for it for 60 days, Watkins said. Expect both parties, at least, to ask for that information so they can add you to their lists for fundraising and other uses. Your vote will still be secret.

Once you choose your party, you select which candidate you prefer. On the Republican side, there will only be one name, incumbent President Donald Trump. The Democratic side gets a bit trickier, more on that later.

The two major parties are the only two which have candidates who qualified for the ballot, other parties did not met the minimum threshold to qualify for inclusion.

Watkins notes that when voters sign the pledge determining their party, they are not permitted to alter it in any way.

“If you try to scratch out part of the declaration, it will challenge it,” she said. “It just isn’t how it works.”

In 2016, she said there were about 5,000 voters who did so. In each case, the county needed to contact them to clear up the issue.

2016’s caucus-driven primary was an adventure in democracy with incredibly long lines — and a landslide victory for Bernie Sanders — on Capitol Hill. At its best, the caucus process can be community building. But it can also be a crowded, confusing, messy affair. Seventeen precincts around Cal Anderson Park were assigned to caucus at Century Ballroom in 2016, but those plans were dashed when a line double wrapped around the block an hour before caucusing was even slated to begin. Some 1,500 Capitol Hill residents showed up to caucus at the 10th and E Pine ballroom, close to the record-setting attendance in 2008. Volunteer organizers moved several precinct groups out to Cal Anderson Park while Sen. Jaime Pedersen led two precincts of voters to a nearby church. Some precincts simply self-organized and waited for instructions.

But worse, many voters were unable to attend  the Saturday caucuses at all because of commitments like family and work. Organizers hope the by mail primary makes for a more equitable way for the state to add its influence to the process of selecting presidential candidates.

This year, as usual, ballots must be either postmarked by Election Day, or placed in a ballot drop box by 8 PM March 10. For people mailing them in, Watkins suggests putting it in the mail by the Friday before , so there are no delays in getting it postmarked.

And if you are new to town, since Washington has same day voter registration, voters can register to vote and cast their primary ballot all on the same day, at voting centers around the county.

King County elections is unsure about what turnout will be like for this primary. It’s the first time both parties have used a primary to award delegates, and the first time Washington will be relevant in a long time.

“I think we’re curious to see what voters are going to do,” Watkins said.

The Century Ballroom during the 2016 caucus

THE DEMOCRATS: The Democratic primary is going to be the more interesting one this time around, if only because there will be more candidates on the ballot. There are 13 candidates on Washington’s Democratic ballot, some of whom have already dropped out, and others who may yet prior to March 10.

Making things even more, um, interesting, even candidates who dropped out have a chance to win some of Washington’s 89 pledged delegates to the party’s national convention. Washington also has 19 unpledged delegates, sometimes called superdelegates, who can vote for any candidate at the convention.

If a candidate hits a minimum threshold of 15% of the vote, either statewide or within a congressional district, they are in line to get delegates, said Scott Alspach, chair of the 43rd District Democrats. The 43rd Legislative District covers most of Capitol Hill, and stretches north to Ravenna and then west to cover Wallingford and part of Fremont.

He notes that some party officials expect Washington voters to hold off until just prior to March’s Election Day. Super Tuesday is March 3, one week before Washington’s primary. On that day, the largest number of delegates are awarded, and in past elections candidates use it as gauge to decide if they should remain in the nomination fight or not.

Alspach said he would expect many voters to wait on making their decision, rather than support a candidate only to see them drop out of the race. The party, he said, is not offering any official advice on when voters should decide.

“People should vote whenever they feel comfortable voting,” he said.

Democrats around the state will still be holding a caucus, Alspach notes, though it’s nothing to do with which candidate should be elected. The intra-party caucus will help decide who should represent the area at other internal party meetings, and on up the chain until the state party convention which will vote on who should represent Washington Democrats at the national convention. These caucuses also help decide on the local and state party platform.

They are open to anyone who wants to attend, though people must sign a pledge that they will not participate in the caucuses of other parties. The caucus is set for April 26, though there is a meeting in February for anyone interested in more information.

THE REPUBLICANS: Trump is the only person on the ballot for the Washington GOP this year. Other candidates may have qualified in some other states, but not here said Cynthia Cole, chair of the King County Republicans. Some made calls to see if they could find the support to get on the ballot, but to no avail, she said.

As a result, all of Washington’s 43 delegates to the Republican convention will be there to support Trump.

Similar to Democrats, King County Republicans will be holding a caucus to determine who will go on to higher level conventions, and also to hash out a state party platform. The 43rd will hold its at 9 AM Feb. 29 at Lincoln High School. Again, people will need to pledge not to participate in the process of another party. Participants should also bring a photo ID, with their address on it, (a voter registration card is even better) so organizers can make sure that they are grouped in the correct precinct.

Cole said the Republican caucuses will also feature a straw poll on the governor’s race, to see which candidate should run against Gov. Jay Inslee. The straw poll is, as most straw polls are, non-binding, the real gubernatorial primary will be in August, along with whichever other offices have primary contests this year.

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9 months ago

What if enough people write in Weld or something on the Republican side? Does that affect it at all?

9 months ago

Clearly the primary is a better system when over 600,000 votes for the Democratic candidate was logged in 2016, and only 230,000 physically caucused.

Bob Knudson
Bob Knudson
9 months ago

Iowa needs to follow our lead and change to a primary! The caucus system is a mess and not very democratic.

Phil Mocek
8 months ago
Reply to  Bob Knudson

I think it’s up to the political parties, not the state. Maybe the public could stop footing the bill for political party business instead of worrying about the degree of democracy involved in the parties’ business of selecting nominees for the public to vote on.

9 months ago

Why the hell are we doing first-to-the-post and not ranked-choice or some other preferential voting system? There are two candidates I’d like to see get the nomination and a whole buttload I wouldn’t, and I have a feeling those two candidates’ voter bases will be roughly split and also would prefer the other one of the two over any of the remaining pool.

Split votes do not lead to a healthy democracy, they lead to the third (or worse) choice winning.