State Democratic primary: a vote count that won't count

Expensive but meaningless elections seem to be quite the thing these days in Washington.

Last month, Seattle residents participated in a viaduct vote that cost $1 million but meant nothing.

Now, state Democrats will get to do much the same thing next year, thanks to a vote taken Saturday in Bellingham.

Washington's Democratic Party officials crushed a proposal that would have given meaning to the state's presidential primary. Instead, all of the state's delegates to the Democratic national convention will be selected by caucus.

Gov. Christine Gregoire and House Speaker Frank Chopp, Democrats both, have spoken in favor of selecting at least some delegates through the primary. Republicans have likewise urged Democrats to go that route, saying if you do, we will, too.

But Saturday, it wasn't even close. The proposal went down 119-42 in a vote taken by the party's Central Committee at Western Washington University.

The primary, estimated to cost at least $9 million, will still be held next year. But so far the parties have been unable to agree on exactly when. The default date is May 27, months after both parties' nominees likely will have been determined.

If that happens, the vote will be not only meaningless but late. Even its symbolic value will be gutted.

To supporters, a caucus is like a neighborhood barbecue, an opportunity for folks to meet face-to-face and talk about issues. It's personal politics — and helps the party identify members who might be interested in running for local offices. Caucus fans speak of tradition.

To critics, a caucus is the clichéd smoke-filled room, a place where party insiders make decisions while high-handedly ignoring everyone else. It's elitist — and as outdated as the notion of a meeting room filled with smoke.

"There's a strong case to be made for either position," state Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz said Saturday. Pelz prefers the caucus, describing it as a "grass-roots exercise" that gets more people involved in the party.

The primary, he says, is "more of a television-advertising kind of event."

Asked if the debate had been animated, Pelz said: "On a scale of 1 to 10, it would be a 7 — with a 10 being Tony Blair in Parliament, and a 1 being the level of dissent in the White House."

Urged on by a citizen initiative, the state Legislature established the presidential primary in 1989. But Democrats have ignored the primary results ever since.

Republicans initially picked all their delegates by primary but have gradually taken to allocating some delegates via primary and some via caucus.

In 2004, the state abandoned the presidential primary altogether, deciding the money could be better spent elsewhere.

In 2000, the last time a presidential primary was held in the state, some 1.3 million people voted — about 40 percent of the state's registered voters.

The caucuses, meanwhile, attracted 60,000 participants. They accounted for about 2 percent of the state's voters.

On Thursday, the state GOP chairman, Luke Esser, sent Pelz a letter with what Esser called a "friendly challenge."

If the Democrats would allocate at least half their delegates based on the primary results, then Republicans would do the same, Esser wrote.

"We owe it to the people of our state to work cooperatively to maximize their opportunity to participate in the selection of the candidates for the most important elected office in the world," Esser wrote.

But Pelz said that the national Democratic Party doesn't allow the allocation of delegates to be split. Each state must pick all its delegates through a primary or through a caucus.

The state's Republicans have yet to decide how their delegates will be selected in 2008.

Pelz said he expects Republicans will follow the Democrats' lead: "I actually expect the Republicans to pick 100 percent of their delegates by caucus."

Ken Armstrong: 206-464-3730 or