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Open Primaries and Ranked Choice Voting: A Conversation with WA’s Secretary of State

There is currently a debate occurring in Idaho and Montana (among other locations) about whether to move from a closed primary to an open primary for elections. In Idaho, however, this policy debate has also been married with imposing Ranked Choice Voting (RCV). This is despite the fact that earlier this year a supermajority of the Idaho legislature adopted HB 179 prohibiting RCV. That bill was signed by Governor Little on March 24.

Ranked Choice Voting continues to be controversial across the country.

In 2020, 50.55% of voters in Alaska adopted a Top 4 and RCV ballot measure. Opponents of how RCV has worked since in the state, however, are currently gathering signatures in Alaska for a new ballot measure to repeal Ranked Choice Voting.

Showing concern across the political spectrum, the Democratic party in Washington D.C. last month filed a lawsuit to stop the city from using Ranked Choice Voting.

Washington State has had experience both with an open primary and with local voters in Pierce County adopting and then quickly repealing Ranked Choice Voting.

Here are details on the state’s voter-approved Top Two open primary:

“The Top 2 Primary was passed by the people in 2004 as an initiative. Initiative 872 passed by almost 60%. In 2005, before the new law was implemented, the Washington state Democratic, Republican, and Libertarian Parties sued in federal court. The lower courts imposed an injunction prohibiting the state from implementing the new Primary, but in March 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the new law. Washington state used the new Primary for the first time in the 2008 Primary and General Elections.”

As for RCV, this is from a 2009 blog post by the Washington Secretary of State’s Office discussing why 71% of Pierce County voters repealed Ranked Choice Voting after using the system only once:

“It has always been kinda confusing to explain, but advocates believed it would be extremely popular and then possibly catch on elsewhere. Its biggest usage was last year when a new County Executive and other offices were filled this way, running in tandem with the regular state primary and general elections. It went downhill from there. Voters participating in an auditor’s survey said by a 2-to-1 margin that they didn’t like the system. And this year, it was back on the ballot –and voters have thrown it out by a 71-29 margin.”

So, what does Washington State’s top election official think about all of this?

Here is my interview with Washington Secretary of State Steve Hobbs discussing his support of open primaries and his concerns with Ranked Choice Voting (my questions are in italics):

Washington voters several years ago adopted an open primary reform called the “Top Two.” Could you briefly explain the benefits of an open primary and how the Top Two works?

Secretary Hobbs: “We don’t register by political party in Washington, and the top two primary system creates a wide-open path for voters to choose any candidate they want in the Primary. It then provides a general election between voters’ top choices without giving systemic support to partisanship. After our first top two primary in 2008, which was also the nation’s first, surveys showed that 76% of voters liked the process, which puts the spotlight in the right place: on candidates for office, not political parties.”

Several states are considering moving not only to an open primary but also tying that policy to Ranked Choice Voting (RCV). Washington state has some experience with RCV with Pierce County adopting and then immediately repealing the process. Do you have any concerns with RCV and would you recommend instead that states just use a “Top Two” styled format for open primaries?

Secretary Hobbs: “Ranked-choice voting adds a layer of complexity to voting that threatens to disenfranchise people who aren’t experts at the process. This includes people living with developmental disabilities – such as my son – for whom choosing one candidate is more straightforward than figuring out how to rank a list of them. Additionally, it can be a challenge for newly-naturalized citizens to adapt to American elections. Converting some elections to ranked-choice voting would increase the obstacles to exercising their rights as Americans. Top-two primaries present none of these challenges. You pick your favorite, then you send in your ballot. That’s something people can easily grasp. I stand firmly behind Top Two and encourage other states to learn from our usage of it.”

Earlier this year Secretary Hobbs shared similar concerns when testifying before Washington’s legislature (1:25:20 mark of public hearing).

It is important to remember that elections don’t belong to private political parties. While private political groups have the right to identify their standard bearers, that doesn’t mean voters should be restricted in deciding who advances to the general election and represents them in office.

As explained by the Washington Secretary of State’s Office concerning the Top Two:

“Each candidate for partisan office may state a political party that he or she prefers. A candidate's preference does not imply that the candidate is nominated or endorsed by the party, or that the party approves of or associates with that candidate. The party preference has no impact on election operations or which candidates stay in the race to the General Election. The two candidates who receive the most votes in the Primary, and who receive at least 1% of the votes, advance to the General . . .

The parties do not own a spot on the General Election ballot. Instead, the two candidates who appear on the ballot at the General Election are the two who received the most votes in the Primary. These candidates might prefer the same party, different parties, or not state a preference. In some races, all candidates who file declare a party preference for the same party.”

Moving our election systems to a clean open primary like Washington’s Top Two, is a debate worth having. Adopting open primaries, however, need not be limited to a take-it-or-leave-it proposition tied to the controversy of Ranked Choice Voting.

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