The Fury and the Folly
Wednesday, August 7, 2019
THE FURY AND THE FOLLY: Another healthy turnout for a contested primary election, with results again drawn along partisan lines even in local races that are ostensibly and declaratively nonpartisan.
Quick takes: Kathy Kershner appears destined to strongly reclaim her seat on Whatcom County Council. Satpal Sidhu seems on track to become the next Whatcom County Executive. And Seth Fleetwood may see his boyhood dream come true as Mayor of Bellingham. Bellingham City Council is going to welcome in a new generation of members—very exciting. And Whatcom’s Coastal District 5 continues to offer this season’s most mysterious and hard-to-call political dynamic.
Statewide, this is the first contest in which all aspects of recent state election reform were in play—automatic voter registration, same-day registration, vote-by-mail, postage-paid returns.
Winners. And losers—but one loser moving into the fall is the lost robust discussion of how to govern, how best to establish responsible policy, in a strongly paralyzed political ferment where one side denies the legitimacy of governance and policy, full stop. It’s like developing a parenting plan where the father angrily denies he is a parent at all.
Another iron law of politics:
Those who lean Republican vote more dependably and more frequently than those who lean Democrat, and their votes have to go somewhere, to some candidate in support of whom they’re by default fiercely united. This is the essential conundrum and folly—the kryptonite—of the Democrats’ new passion for contested primaries.
The state’s Top-Two primary is like using a hammer to repair window glass for a more transparent representative democracy—the astonishingly wrong tool to use on the stated goal. It cannot work—by design it cannot.
Contested primaries increase voter interest and participation in elections overall—but contested primaries do not mesh well or play nice with the state’s aggressive Top-Two, which rewards unified politics on the right while punishing fractious politics on the left.
You cannot move political discussions to the left while the right holds enormous power to grapple that discussion and drag it back into their hemisphere.
The folly is on vivid display in the 40th Legislative District, where two breathtakingly excellent Democrats raised and spent $100,000 hammering at one another for a seat up for election again in just 12 months. You could not slide a wisp of paper between Sen. Liz Lovelett and Carrie Blackwood in their values, or the issues these progressive Democrats will champion and the votes they will deliver in Olympia next session.
This is a district uniquely suited and primed to welcome a robust debate among liberals. Over the past several election cycles, this district has gone 67 percent to the Democrats. But split among three Democrats, even that abundance is barely sufficient. Because the remaining third has to go somewhere.
In election night returns, it appears that the two best qualified Democrats may (barely) hold enough surfeit of votes between them
that both will indeed continue on into the general election. But realize: Only a district with this superabundance of D votes could have eked out this result.
Because Republican votes must go somewhere, a mere handful of votes in future counts (with many thousands of ballots still out) could pit Liz Lovelett against a Republican who has literally wondered aloud whether jet contrail water-vapor contains mind-altering chemicals—tin-foil hat stuff.
Contested primaries clash the best and brightest in heated exchange on the Left only to produce a final fizzle against the inept, the venal, the crazed and the unsuited on the Right—Orpheus versus oatmeal. Because Republican votes must go somewhere.
The Gristle’s sour projection of election results based on candidate filings in May appears eerily on track to November—the top vote-getters for the position of county CEO will likely be reversed in the fall as the coalition of votes for progressives stack together and build on one another in the general election. Tony Larson got a large portion of his support from the persistent bloc of voters angry at the government and all its products—but they’re not the majority of all voters. They’re about 38 percent of the overall county, concentrated in districts like Kershner’s.
Something similar may unfold in District 5, where progressive votes will gather strength in unison in November.
Outcomes are more dynamic in the City of Bellingham. Seth Fleetwood strongly outperformed all other contenders, and likely progressive votes will continue to collect in Seth’s favor in the general election this fall.
We’re not sure what the answer is for a more representative political dynamic in elections outside Bellingham.
An alternative balloting concept where voters rank their candidate choices is intriguing, but fraught with its own potential for calamitous consequences—including a recipe ripe for mischief as spiteful blocs of voters rank the weakest of opposition candidates as their second favorite choice, thereby denying the opposition’s first, best choice a chance in office. Their votes have to go somewhere, to serve some purpose—even a spoiling purpose.
Likely, though, ranked choice is an improvement in shaving down the most perverse aspects of local nonpartisan elections, ensuring campaign messaging is less predictable and ballot outcomes are less assured. And our politics (given the investment building around them) are surely in need of improvement.