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Originally published Wednesday, July 20, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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It's time for state's voters to move on — to Montana

Tradition is wonderful, but sometimes you just have to move on. That's the case with the Washington "top-two" primary election; U.S. District Court Judge Thomas...

Special to The Times

TRADITION is wonderful, but sometimes you just have to move on.

That's the case with the Washington "top-two" primary election; U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Zilly put the stake in the heart of our unique voting system Friday, ruling that it doesn't meet federal constitutional standards.

The world has not ended, dear friends and neighbors, and the exact system of conducting primary elections is not ultimately the most important element in getting good public servants.

Quality public servants can emerge under almost any electoral system — certainly Washington's old blanket primary produced many distinguished public servants, and our share of dunderheads as well. Ditto the closed primary used in Oregon and the Montana-style primary we will revert to in September. To draw on history of 30 years ago, so as not to offend current politicians, Washington produced Dan Evans, Oregon Tom McCall and Montana Mike Mansfield under three very different primary systems.

It is not the system that determines quality — it is the quality of the electorate. You and me.

To the extent that we allow party officials to determine our choices, and disdain politics as dirty work for someone else, we will elect hacks and lackeys beholden to special interests. To the extent that we support friends and neighbors who are willing to sacrifice privacy to serve in public office, we will elect strong people.

Perhaps the most disturbing electoral development in Washington in the past few years is not the endless primary battle but the extent to which party leaders and bankrollers want to control the nomination process.

Saturday's paper, announcing Judge Zilly's ruling, also contained the news that Dino Rossi is out of the Republican race for U.S. Senate next year, and Safeco CEO Mike McGavick is "the first choice of party leaders."

That's fine; McGavick looks like an excellent candidate and party leaders certainly have the right to express an opinion. But what happened in the gubernatorial and Senate races in 2004 was wrong — GOP leaders simply froze out anyone but Rossi and Congressman George Nethercutt, respectively. Would-be candidates, some of whom certainly had the capacity to serve with distinction, were told to bug out and were not even allowed to speak at the Republican convention if they criticized a rival. Let's hope the same pattern isn't emerging with McGavick. Some lively competition would be good for all.

That type of muscle does not serve the voters — it serves the entrenched powers of the party. Would Democrats have done the same? Perhaps, but certainly not in 2004. Then-Attorney General Christine Gregoire had lively competition for the open governor's seat, although Sen. Patty Murray enjoyed the usual incumbent's advantage.

My point is that under any system, party leaders can muscle voters out of the picture by intimidating challengers to the party's favorite and drying up their funding. When that happens, as it clearly did in 2004, voters don't get the chance to pick someone willing to buck the party establishment.

Washington's blanket primary wasn't the solution to that, nor is the Montana system, nor Oregon's closed primary. The only solution is for voters, organized or individually, to seek and support good people.

We certainly wouldn't get that under a system of party conventions, the worst possible way to nominate candidates for the general election. Every voter needs to have a chance to participate, not just the few who show up for a convention.

The rap on the Montana system is that "independent" voters in the primary must select only a Republican, Democratic or Libertarian ballot. In this age of political division, for better or worse, most of us lean enough to the right or left to pick a party ballot without difficulty.

There are worse things than declaring a party preference every two years, a declaration that applies only to the primary and is not recorded, sparing you from political-party solicitations. Closed primaries such as Oregon's record your party registration and don't give you a choice in the primary of switching sides. The Montana system is clearly more aligned with Washingtonians' desire to keep options open.

Washington's "top-two" primary was one of a kind (Louisiana's is similar, but different). Perhaps there was a reason for that? Montana's system is also used by at least seven other states: Hawaii, Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Vermont and Wisconsin. Pretty good company.

The Montana system protects voter privacy, offers more choices than a closed primary, and will certainly pass judicial muster. It's time for us to move on.

Floyd J. McKay, a journalism professor emeritus at Western Washington University, is a regular contributor to Times editorial pages. E-mail him at floydmckay@yahoo.com

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