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Washington bumps presidential primary vote to March

Austin Jenkins
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee prepares to sign a bill moving the state's presidential primary from May to March.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a candidate for the 2020 Democratic nomination, signed legislation Thursday to bump the state’s presidential primary from late May to early March. It’s a move designed to make Washington, a frequently overlooked state with just 12 electoral votes, more relevant in the nominating process.

"This bill does strengthen Washington state's role in the national democratic process," Inslee said at a bill signing ceremony at the Capitol.

By moving the election to the second Tuesday in March, Washington’s primary will come one week after Super Tuesday when 10 states, including California, cast their votes. Previously, California held its presidential primary in June.

Washington will join Idaho, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio in voting on March 10, 2020. Bills have also been introduced in the Oregon Legislature to move the primary to March, but so far the idea has not gained traction. Oregon is scheduled to hold its presidential primary on May 19, 2020.

The passage and signing of the primary bill comes as Inslee embarks on what’s viewed as a longshot bid for the Democratic nomination. He announced his candidacy for president earlier this month and is running on a platform of combating climate change. Inslee was scheduled to depart Thursday evening for a six-day campaign swing to New York and New Hampshire, which holds the nation’s first primary election in January.

In recent presidential cycles, Washington has been largely ignored by presidential candidates. Also, by the time the May primary was held, it was often clear who the nominees would be. Now with a March primary, the state may be more likely to attract visits from candidates. 

Under Washington’s new primary law, the political parties, not the secretary of state, will determine which candidates appear on the ballot. As was previously the case, voters will have to pick a party ballot and vote only for the candidates on that ballot.

Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman supported moving the primary date up and applauded the passage of the bill earlier this month.

“Moving Washington’s primary earlier in the national process will give our voters a greater voice and draw more attention to our state’s concerns and issues,” Wyman said in a statement at the time.

However, Wyman expressed disappointment that lawmakers rejected her proposal to allow voters to participate in the primary without declaring a party affiliation. Many Republicans in the Legislature voted against the final bill. 

Washington holds both a presidential primary and caucuses. In previous years, Democrats have used the caucuses, not the primary results, to determine the number of delegates awarded to each candidate. But that could change this year. Next month, the Washington State Democratic Central Committee will vote on whether to continue with the caucus system or switch to using the primary results.

“Our goal for 2020 is to run the most successful caucus or primary ever in Washington state,” said Democratic Party chair Tina Podlodowski in a statement.

In 2016, the Washington State Republican Party allocated its delegates based on the results of the primary and plans to do the same in 2020.

The estimated cost of conducting the presidential primary in Washington is $13.6 million. In 2004 and 2012, Washington cancelled its presidential primaries because they were viewed as costly beauty contests.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."