PCO Elections

From Natalie McClendon:

Attached is a memo from me outlining an approach to legislation for 2012 to address the matter of PCO elections, in the wake of the ruling on the Top Two Primary. I am proposing that the Party consider online voting for PCO’s.

I propose that the Executive Board discuss this on Friday, September 16; then send the matter to the Central Committee for discussion the next day. If the body supports the concept of online voting for PCO, I would seek authorization to pursue legislation in the 2012 Session.

from Dwight Pelz, Chair, WSDCC

In his ruling on the Top Two Primary, Judge Coughenour ruled that the conduct of PCO elections under the Top Two ballot is unconstitutional because it allows any voter to vote to elect a party official. (a PCO) However he noted that the State could stop requiring PCO elections. The county auditors and Secretary of State Sam Reed want the Legislature to do away with PCO elections, and the Coughenour ruling opens the door.

PCO Elections are Important
This is bad public policy. Our political system is more transparent and more democratic because we elect PCO’s. Washington’s Legislature passed precinct committee officer election laws in 1907 to prevent the political corruption of Tammany Hall and Boss Tweed. PCO’s are elected by the voters in the precinct, not chosen by the Party boss. Elected PCO’s organize the county and LD parties, electing its officers and two state committee representatives, who then control the state party.

Elected PCO’s are a source of stability for the Democratic and Republican (D and R) parties. The election of PCO’s every two years is the “re-set button” that centers the Party. Without PCO elections the local parties can become increasingly ideological, and/or personality-driven. If there is no re-set button, then appointed PCO’s will appoint additional PCO’s, and many parties will soon evolve into personality cults or ideological enclaves. If the re-organization of the local Parties, and the subsequent election of the State Central Committee and the State Party Chair become increasingly unpredictable, then the quality of the work of the State Party will soon diminish.

The Auditors Association and Secretary of State (SOS) Sam Reed may not care about the stability of the local and state parties, but active Democrats and Republicans, and the public, should care.

The critical question now, is “What is our counter to the proposal to eliminate the PCO elections?” Legislators will be empathetic to the auditors, who will claim that they are broke, just like the State is, and they need help to identify savings.

Reforms I Believe We Might Agree To
Currently an individual files for PCO, and their name appears on the Primary ballot, where anyone can vote without declaring a party. Write-ins for PCO election are allowed. Less than 1% of Democratic PCO races statewide are contested, half in King County. 3% of Republican races are contested.

The auditors make several valid points that I think we should concede to, in the interests of saving the counties money, and reaching agreement with the Legislature.

  1. Do not allow write-ins for PCO elections. These are very expensive to count and report.
  2. Do not conduct an election where there are no candidates, once write-ins are disallowed.
  3. Do not conduct an election where there is only one candidate filed, since without write-ins he or she is the automatic winner.
  4. Only conduct an election in those precincts with contested PCO races.

Three Possible Approaches to Conducting PCO Elections

  1. Conduct the PCO elections on the Presidential Primary Ballot
    In 2011 Rep Chris Hurst introduced a bill to conduct PCO elections every four years, on the Presidential Primary (PP) ballot. Judge Coughenour ruled that the PCO elections are unconstitutional, because there is no oath or test of who is voting – currently Democrats can vote for a Republican PCO candidate, and vice versa. The PP ballot contains such an oath. It is public record who requests the D or R ballot, and the D & R parties, and anyone else, can have access to this list. (The parties must have access to the lists of those voting in the PCO election, in order to verify that only self-identified Democrats or Republicans voted in the PCO race.)Rep. Hurst did us all a favor by introducing this bill to get the conversation going, but the bill died for several reasons. First and foremost, the Legislature cancelled the 2012 PP.

    More importantly, I and others began to feel it was a big mistake to abandon conducting PCO elections every two years in August; as opposed to every four years in March. There are too many problems created – four years is too long, the Legislature is prone to cancelling the PP, you cannot re-organize six months before the Presidential election, etc.

  2. The Auditors Print and Mail a Separate Ballot for the Contested PCO Races
    A second ballot would be mailed to voters in precincts with contested PCO races. A voter would have to sign on the outer ballot indicating that he or she is a D or an R. Then their vote would count in that contested PCO election.We are clearly reducing the costs for the auditors, but this still requires the mailing of a second ballot, and associated costs of signature verification and counting and list creation.
  3. Online Voting for PCO Elections
    The SOS office and the auditors both raised the possibility of online voting for PCO’s. While skeptical at first, I heard them out, and now find that the proposal has merit.

How Online Voting for PCO Elections Might Work

While none of this has been thoroughly discussed nor negotiated with the SOS or the auditors, this is how I think it could go:

PCO candidates register with their County Auditor. The Auditor then “conducts” an online election, primarily through a contract with a (computer) vendor.

The Auditor would mail a postcard with a unique identifier (PIN) to each registered voter in the precincts with contested PCO elections. The postcard would direct the voter to a website where they could learn which party has a PCO contest in their precinct. If they choose to vote, they have to agree to an “oath” that they are a D or an R, understanding that their name and party affiliation would then become public information. Voters who do not choose to participate online might have the option to call in a vote to a computerized phone system, providing their PIN on the keypad.

The vendor would receive these votes online, electronically tabulate the winner, and electronically provide the list of voters who agreed to an oath to the SOS, which would make it publicly available.

It would be far cheaper for the auditors than to mail a separate ballot. The lists would be provided quickly and accurately. The proposal should have great appeal to the auditors, and the Legislature. It would allow us to continue to elect our PCO’s at or near the Primary of even numbered years, thus keeping our current reorganization schedule intact.

Some voters are not computer literate, and might even have a problem voting on the telephone.

There may be those that object because the oppose online voting in general. While I recognize and agree with those fears when it comes to electing our public officials; I do not believe that criminals will attempt to hack the system in order to elect one or more PCO’s. This system is not perfect, but electing PCO’s is an important, albeit low stakes election, and we should be willing to compromise in order to retain it.

Related documents:

Proposal on PCO elections

PCO elections for 2010


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