Time for political parties to elect their own officials

The state's Democratic and Republican parties share a unified stance on at least one position -- thwarting the will of Washington's voters.

Their unending quest to force partisan primaries on a population the clearly rejects them recently took an absurd turn.

Early this year, the parties convinced a judge that including elections for party precinct committee members on the state's nonpartisan primary ballots violated the political parties' constitutional rights.

In identically worded complaints, the parties asked the court to permanently restrain the state from "conducting elections of officers of the party, directly or indirectly, including precinct committee officers, in any manner that is not approved by the party."

But after winning their argument, state Democrats and Republicans are now suing to force the state to hold elections for these low-level party functionaries.

Fair enough. The parties are private organizations and their members ought to use whatever means they want to decide who is going to represent them at conventions and perform other party functions.

Just don't ask the rest of us to pay for it.

If the parties' flip-flopping seems confusing, it's because the lawsuits are really about another issue. These latest gyrations are part of the parties' convoluted attempts to kill the popular nonpartisan top-2 primary system and force Washington voters to declare party allegiance before picking up a ballot.

A partisan system is useful to political parties, which end up with big lists of potential supporters to call on when it's time to find donations and volunteers.

But Washington's independent-minded voters want to be able to pick the best candidate, regardless of party. In the state's top-2 system, voters get to select from the entire slate of candidates, and the two highest vote-getters advance to the general election in 2004 -- even when both claim the same party preference.

Nearly 60 percent of the state approved the system in 2004. The parties fought to get it overturned, winning the first round in 2005. But three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the top-2 system passes constitutional muster.

That ought to be the end of it, but party hacks keep finding ways to launch new assaults against the people's will.

This latest is attack is absurd, given the earlier lawsuit to remove party elections from nonpartisan ballots.

Frankly, having taxpayers pay for private organizations to elect officers never did make sense. Many of the slots had either one candidate or none at all. Even when there was a contest, a lot of voters ignored it.

The process is expense. There are about 6,500 precincts across the state, so potentially 13,000 contests for two parties. Benton and Franklin counties alone have 288 precincts.

The exact cost is tough to estimate but would certainly run into the millions. According to the Seattle Times, King County officials estimated the precinct committee officer elections accounted for about 25 percent -- or $1.3 million -- of the county's primary election costs.

But at any price, it doesn't make sense for taxpayers to fund elections for private organizations.

Unfortunately, the court didn't rule against publicly funded elections of PCOs and listed several options that wouldn't violate the parties' constitutional rights.

But included in those options is the right one -- for the state to get out of the parties' business altogether and let those private groups hold their own elections.

The Legislature could pass legislation authorizing one of the other options.

What an embarrassment that would be in these financial times -- picking up the cost of choosing party officials while cutting funds for schoolchildren.