The auditor discusses presidential primaries and caucuses

By F. Milene Henley

San Juan County Auditor

The first in a series of articles about elections in Washington State by San Juan County Auditor. 2016 is a special year in elections. Not only is it a presidential election year, it’s also a year in which we are guaranteed a new president, because of the two-term limit on the office.

We’ve already endured months of campaigning, debates and news coverage leading to this point. Now we’re in the swing of state presidential primaries and caucuses, as state political parties prepare to select their candidates for the general election ballot in November.

To recognize this important year, I’ll be posting a series of articles about elections in Washington State. For the first one, I’m starting with the question on everyone’s minds right now, which is: How does Washington’s hybrid caucus- primary system work?

Primaries are elections, conducted similarly to all other elections and open to all eligible voters, in which voters weigh in on which candidates should advance to the general election.

Caucuses are meetings at which members of a single party consider platform, discuss candidates, and elect delegates to later conventions.

In most caucus states, the caucus system determines which Presidential candidate the parties in that state will support. Both systems have advantages and disadvantages. Caucuses are true grass-roots efforts, where informed participants discuss matters face-to-face.

On the other hand, participation in them is a tiny fraction of participation in elections, and critics say the results are controlled by party insiders and career politicians.

Elections have the advantages of a secret ballot and much greater participation, suggesting a more truly representative selection. But detractors argue that poll voters are less informed and less committed to the parties that must ultimately support the candidates.

Washington, unlike most states, has a hybrid system, in which we hold both party caucuses and a Presidential Primary. The system works differently for Republicans than for Democrats.

Republicans – who caucus on Saturday, Feb. 20 – will discuss platforms, candidates and delegates at the caucuses, but will not determine their allocation of delegates to the candidates. Rather, they have vowed this year, for the first time, to allocate 100 percent of their delegates based on the results of the state’s   Presidential Primary.

Democrats will caucus on Saturday, March 26. As in the past, they will allocate 100 percent of their national delegates based on caucuses.

Washington’s Presidential Primary will be held on May 24. The late date means that 34 states (of the 40 that conduct primaries) will hold their primaries before we do.

One may legitimately ask how much influence the Washington primary can have on the outcome of the race, when it is so late in the game. Clearly, it won’t affect the Democrats’ choice at all, since Democrats have declined to use the results of the primary.

It will affect the allocation of Washington’s Republican delegates, though its influence on the national Republican scene may be limited, because of timing. For either party, it’s possible that the winning candidate will be all but confirmed by the time we get to vote.

Either way, if you want to play a part, go to the caucus of your choice and see how this time-honored political process works. You’ll also have a chance to vote in the presidential primary on May 24. But be aware: at the caucuses, as in the primary, you will be expected to sign an affirmation that you consider yourself to be of that party. More on Washington elections next month.