PCO Elections

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Seattle Times

For more than 100 years, Washington’s Legislature has enabled voters to have a voice in selecting these grass-roots leaders of Washington’s political parties. Last month, the Washington state Democratic and Republican parties united in a lawsuit to stop Secretary of State Sam Reed from overstepping his authority and unilaterally abolishing PCO elections.

Sadly, The Seattle Times criticized the challenge to Reed’s move in an editorial that failed to recognize the vital role that PCOs play in our democratic system of government, much less the numerous state statutes that require the state to conduct PCO elections. [“State should stay out of precinct elections,” Opinion, Jan. 2.]

The Legislature created PCO elections in 1907 to empower voters and grass-roots activists to prevent the political corruption exhibited by party bosses like Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall. PCO elections give the public a voice in the conduct of our political parties, ensuring that these vital components of our democracy are organized from the bottom up, not the top down.

The Times argues that the Democratic and Republican parties are private institutions, and Reed writes “county election offices do not conduct elections for other private associations, such as Rotary Clubs, unions, or trade associations.”

The fact is that the parties are a part of our elections and governance, which is why they are referenced 10 times in our Constitution and more than 150 times in state statutes. The Rotary Clubs, machinists union and chamber of commerce are not mentioned once and for good reason: They play no role in identifying or selecting party nominees or elected officials.

There is a second critical reason that we brought this lawsuit against Secretary Reed — we believe he is breaking the law.

Our statutes, passed by the Legislature, clearly require the state to conduct PCO elections every two years during primary elections. Earlier this year, the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington ruled that due to the state’s recently adopted top-two primary system, the current method by which the state holds PCO elections is unconstitutional. However, the court did not strike down the statutes requiring the state to conduct these elections.

In December, Reed unilaterally adopted rules to abolish the state’s obligation to conduct these important elections. He exceeded his authority by attempting to overturn state statute through rule making. This is a critical constitutional standard in Washington law — the executive branch cannot veto the statutes passed by the Legislature.

Since the laws requiring the election of PCOs remain on the books, the state is obligated to identify a constitutional method for conducting these elections. The state parties have met several times with representatives of Reed’s office and proposed a number of solutions that would reduce the cost and complexity of conducting PCO elections — including keeping uncontested races off the ballot and prohibiting write-in candidates. Unfortunately, neither the secretary nor the county auditors association has been willing to respond to our proposals.

During the upcoming legislative session, we are prepared to work with lawmakers, the secretary of state and county auditors to find the best and most cost-effective solution. We strongly urge Reed, as the state’s top election officer, to come on board.

PCOs encourage local citizens to engage in the political process. They inform their neighbors about political issues. They make sure that on election day, Washington voters make their voices heard. To lose PCO elections would be a loss for transparency, accountability and good government.

Dwight Pelz is chair of the Washington State Democrats and Kirby Wilbur is chair of the Washington State Republican Party.