News

Election overhaul controversial

By PAT JENKINS

Editor

Washington's switch to a restricted method of voting in primary elections may not be as unpopular as believed, according to King County's top election official.

Dean Logan, head of the department that includes elections, said voters generally accept the new ballot and might even use it in larger-than-usual numbers in the primary next month.

But the court-ordered change that requires voters to choose candidates based on their political party affiliation is generating animosity among voters, say candidates who have heard the complaints firsthand on Federal Way residents' doorsteps.

"It's like Castor oil. It doesn't matter how you give it, people don't like it," said state Rep. Skip Priest, who's running for re-election in the 30th District.

Because of a court ruling that Washington's blanket primary system was unconstitutional, the state has changed the way its citizens vote for the first time in almost 70 years. Instead of voting for anyone, they now must pick a ballot listing the candidates from one party or another in order to choose partisan candidates. The ability to vote for non-partisan candidates, such as judges, isn't affected.

The new system applies only to the primary Sept. 14. There is no change in voting for the general election in November.

To help determine what ballot format would be the most effective, King County election officials mailed sample ballot formats to 1,600 randomly selected voters and conducted in-person focus groups with voters who responded. Officials said they learned:

• People followed the instructions and adjusted to the change better than voters who've made similar transitions in other states.

• Taxpayers are concerned about the cost of printing and handling three times as many ballots as before.

• More voters support a single ballot over separate party-specific ballots, and the rate of ballots that were filled out correctly was the same for single and separate ballot designs.

• Though unhappy about the change, people consider voting too important to sit out the primary.

Based on that information, officials chose a single-ballot design in which voters will declare their party by marking their selection on the top of the ballot and vote for candidates from that party, as well as voting on non-partisan contests and ballot measures. The latter can be done without selecting a party.

Logan said the county elections department, from feedback by voters, knows the new system isn't sitting well with everyone.

"We are getting some backlash from peole saying that if this is how it will be, they won't vote," he said.

But in the focus groups, people "who take elections seriously enough said they'd get past it and still vote," Logan noted. People who cast ballots in primaries are typically the most active voters, anyway, he added.

And, Logan said, new voters are ignoring the change and registering in "pretty significant" numbers –– so much that he expects a 43 percent voter turnout for the primary, which is higher than the 37 to 41 percent typical in presidential-year primaries.

The tolerance of new voters is different from older ones. Joe Henry, a Democrat from Federal Way running for the state representative seat held by Priest, a Republican, said elderly voters at a recent campaign coffee spent most of the time criticizing the loss of the old blanket primary.

"They're some of the voters most used to that method," Henry noted. "They and a lot of other people are very, very upset, to the point that some say they'll protest by not voting."

Priest said he's heard similar complaints (though not many refusals to vote) while going door to door to talk politics and elections with citizens. He said some voters who apparently missed earlier news reports knew nothing about the primary change until getting information from election officials.

The League of Women Voters, an organization that encourages voter participation in elections, is hoping the primary ballot doesn't join a list of other reasons that keep people away from polls. The League says reasons given for not voting in the 2000 election included "too busy" (21 percent), "illness or emergency" (15 percent), "not interested" (12 percent) and "forgot" (4 percent).

For people not already registered, today is the deadline for registering by mail to vote in the primary. After today, they can still sign up in person at the elections office at the county courthouse in Seattle, but no later than 15 days before the election.

Additional information on registration and absentee ballots is available at (206) 296-8683 and through an on-line elections department link with the Mirror's Web site (www.fedwaymirror.com).

Editor Pat Jenkins: 925-5565, editor@fedwaymirror.com

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