If you’re registered to vote in the state of Washington, you’ve already received your primary ballot by now and if you’re a Democrat, you’ve got some options.
After the snafu in Iowa, the drubbing in New Hampshire, candidates going “all in” in Nevada, the testing of one-time front-runner Joe Biden’s firewall in South Carolina and the slew of states going to the polls on Super Tuesday, it will finally be Washington Democratic voters’ turn to weigh in on what many feel to be a uniquely consequential election with equally dramatic consequences.
The Democratic field began crowded, with 29 different people declaring themselves a presidential candidate at some point or another, some jumping in the race as early as 2017. Only 13 candidates made it onto the Washington state ballot and, of those, at least seven have formally suspended their campaigns.
While Washington — a reliably blue state — doesn’t get as much attention as the corn-fed folks in Iowa or the delegate juggernaut that is California, voters here are still weighing their options with care. Roughly 18.4 percent of voters had cast their ballot early as of March 3, according to the secretary of state, including 16 percent of King County voters.
Some may be waiting to see if their preferred candidate drops out should the March 3 contest blow away their chances of the nomination. Others may simply not know which of the historically progressive policy proposals to get behind. Still more may want to participate but leave the choice to their delegate by voting “uncommitted.”
But whatever Washingtonians do, they will be playing by a new set of rules this year, and candidates eager to stake a claim to the title of “Democratic nominee” are doing what they can to win their votes.
How it works
The 2016 Democratic primary and general election made an indelible mark on politicians, voters and pundits everywhere. It redefined “electability” — after all, if a reality television show host with no experience in politics, peculiar ideas about science and a history of racist, misogynist words and actions can win the presidency, basically nothing is disqualifying.
It also led the Washington Democratic Party to make a significant change in the way it ran its nomination process.
To participate in the process four years ago, Washingtonians gathered at caucus sites on March 26 and physically indicated which candidate — former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or Sen. Bernie Sanders — they wanted to represent them in the general election.
Caucusing demonstrates a candidate’s ability to persuade undecided voters to back them, sure, but they are also a litmus test for inspiration and excitement. Maybe someone will vote for you, but will they show up with their neighbors for hours on a Saturday for you?
The trouble, however, came when Washington also ran a vote-by-mail primary that year. While Sanders dominated the caucuses and won the majority of delegates, Clinton won the primary where substantially more Washingtonians participated.
This year, the party did away with the caucus altogether in favor of the primary, which it moved up by roughly two weeks.
“I think that the move to a primary and change in timing have a couple of effects,” said John Wilkerson, director of the Center for American Politics and Public Policy at the University of Washington. “The primary is going to bring in a wider distribution of voters, so it will be more representative than a caucus system.
“You get different results based on who shows up,” Wilkerson continued. “I think the hope is that, because it’s earlier and because the results are viewed as more representative, it might have more of an impact on the process nationally.”
That impact may be somewhat diluted after Super Tuesday, assuming that the results are in by the time ballots are due — folks on edge after a delay in the results in Iowa and still biting their nails wondering who won California — another vote-by-mail state with a history of slow results — may have an ulcer by the time Washington finishes tallying its results.
“[T]ake your time, Iowa, lemme tell you about something called the 4 p.m. drop,” joked Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis on Twitter in February, referring to the practice of releasing updated, but not final, results on Friday afternoons.
Still, moving away from caucuses makes it easier for parents with small children, workers with conflicting schedules and people with disabilities to make their voices heard.
Allexa Laycock, editor and producer with Rooted in Rights, a disability rights organization, interviewed advocates across the country about caucuses and what prevents people with disabilities from fully participating in them.
Caucus sites may not be accessible to wheelchair users, for instance, or may be too noisy, loud and hectic for those with sensory processing disabilities who have difficulty with the volume and deluge of information.
“It’s really difficult, because the whole method of the caucus is you have to be aggressive, loud, and argue your point,” Laycock said. “It’s very hard to say that there’s anything particularly accessible about the caucus.”
Apportioning delegates via primary is more inclusive of people with disabilities, a particularly important demographic for Democratic presidential hopefuls who need their numbers and center their candidacy around issues like health care.
“We organize online and have a big online presence,” Laycock said. “And, because more and more it’s happening online, it’s happening on Instagram, it’s happening on social media, more communities have been able to engage.”
Candidates have taken notice. While Rooted in Rights and Disability Rights Washington do not endorse candidates, Laycock noted that some campaigns have put out plans centered on people with disabilities and are hiring staff or consultants to bring that perspective.
Were they perfect out of the gate? No, Laycock said — almost no candidates even had accessible websites to start.
“One of the main takeaways is that folks with disabilities really want to be engaged,” Laycock said.
Candidates take the field
Washington isn’t a heavy hitter when it comes to delegates. Of the 1,991 needed to clinch the nomination, the state contributes 89. That, its position after Super Tuesday, its whiteness and its history of lining up solidly in the Democratic column mean it doesn’t get the same amount of nail-biting attention as earlier, more diverse states.
That doesn’t mean it’s been ignored.
On Feb. 17, 17,000 people descended on the Tacoma Dome to see Sanders, a showing that his campaign stated was the largest presidential rally held by any candidate in Washington so far. The crowd listened to the Grammy-winning indie rock band Portugal. The Man and cheered when Seattle City Council members Teresa Mosqueda and Kshama Sawant took to the stage to introduce the candidate.
Less than a week later, Warren held an evening event at the Seattle Center Armory and stayed for hours as fans queued, waiting for their chance to get a photo with the senator from Massachusetts.
One supporter who snagged a prized photo with Warren was Ruth Stern of Seattle. Stern said she’s been following Warren for some 20 years, impressed by her work advocating for consumer protections.
“I switched from Republican to Democrat just like her,” Stern said, adding that she did so at the same time as Warren and for similar reasons. “I really appreciate everything she’s done for people.”
Warren switched parties in the mid-1990s as research she did on bankruptcy in America fueled a drive to reform public policy.
While Sanders and Warren courted enthusiasm, more moderate candidates aimed to reach voters and drum up campaign donations.
Only cord-cutters who paid a premium could avoid advertisements for former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg — the billionaire dropped nearly half a billion dollars into his campaign, eschewing traditional fundraising and blanketing the country in television and digital ads.
According to filings with the Federal Elections Commission, campaigns spent hundreds of thousands of dollars courting Washington voters with events, ad buys, campaign consulting, campaign materials and polling. These figures do not include staff salaries, office supplies or food outside of events.
The biggest spender by far? The Tulsi Now committee, which dropped more than half a million in Washington, much of it on website and digital management as well as digital ads.
These can be significant sums as campaigns burn through cash trying to break through to the American people. Before Warren verbally disemboweled Bloomberg on stage in the Nevada debate, her campaign had roughly $2 million left on hand, according to Opensecrets.org, a site that collects campaign financial data.
And, candidates have made it clear that Washington is a good place to go to raise funds. Sanders trumpeted a $1.3 million haul in January from Washington alone, and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has stopped by Seattle a handful of times for private fundraisers, as has former Vice President Joe Biden.
Onward and forward
It must be stated, no one knows who will win the Washington primary, much less the Democratic nomination. A recent Crosscut/Elway poll found that while Sanders received the most support of any other candidate in the area, slightly more people were undecided.
Sanders is also in the lead nationally, benefiting from a vote split among the more moderate candidates and an apparent dwindling of support behind Warren, who shares many of the same ideas but ran as a unity candidate with the aim of bringing the left and center-left together. However, Biden’s overwhelming win in South Carolina had him near Sanders’ delegate count.
Despite Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar leaving the race, Democrats may be headed into a contested convention where no single candidate receives a majority of the delegates and everything is up for grabs. That scares some politicos who think back to the contested convention of 1968 that resulted in literal riots in the streets.
The Democratic party likes to think of itself as the “big tent” party, and its supporters are diverse in their opinions, backgrounds ethnicities and needs. There is one thing most do agree on, however.
Whoever walks away with the nomination needs to be the one who can beat President Donald Trump. In a few weeks, we’ll see who Washington tapped for the job.
Journalist Edie Lau contributed to this story.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
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