Check boxes asking voters to declare a party preference are printed on the outside of the 2020 presidential primary ballot near the name of the voter casting the ballot. (Photo Illustration by Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News)

Check boxes asking voters to declare a party preference are printed on the outside of the 2020 presidential primary ballot near the name of the voter casting the ballot. (Photo Illustration by Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News)

Voters balk at declaring party on ballot

PORT ANGELES — Clallam County voters have been joining others throughout the state by expressing concerns over the requirement to declare themselves as Democrats or Republicans in the ongoing presidential primary election, which ends March 10.

“We have numerous calls each day,” Interim Election Manager Damon Townsend said Friday.

In Jefferson County, not so much, Election Coordinator Quinn Grewell said Friday.

Voters there appear to be taking the requirement in stride.

“I would not say we’ve had a lot challenged ballots due to that,” Grewell said.

Townsend said with more than a week to go until ballots are due, Clallam County already has about 500 challenged ballots. Some lack signatures. About half lack a voter’s preference for the Democratic or Republican parties.

That selection is displayed on the outside of the ballot envelope, with the voters’ signature — for all to see.

“The phones have been rather busy,” Townsend said.

As of Friday, Clallam County had received 11,741 ballots out of the 54,251 issued for a voter turnout of 21.64 percent.

Jefferson County had received 5,875 ballots out of 26,166 issued for a turnout of 22 percent.

This is the first time in 75 years that Washington state Democratic voters will participate in a state-run presidential primary to allocate national convention delegates. Both major political parties are allocating delegates through the primaries. Caucuses will choose who will be delegates.

President Donald Trump is the sole primary election choice for declared Republicans.

Thirteen candidates are on the Democrat ballot, although five — Cory Booker, Andrew Yang, Michael Bennet, Deval Patrick and John Delaney — have dropped out since the ballots were printed in January. Votes for them still will be counted and delegates will be awarded to them. National delegates will be able to switch their votes after the first ballot.

Others on the Democrat ballot are Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, Tulsi Gabbard, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer and Elizabeth Warren.

The party declaration is necessary because even though the two parties are on the same ballot, the primary is like two separate elections, officials said. People must decide which primary they want to participate in and cannot participate in both parties’ primaries.

The reason that the declaration is on the envelope instead of the ballot is to help with ballot processing. They are first sorted by party declaration before they are prepared for the count on Election Day.

The party preferences and who made them is made available to to the public and intended for use by Republican and Democratic party organizations for campaign purposes.

Anyone can obtain the list of names and party selections for 60 days after the primary before they are expunged from county records.

The state Secretary of State’s Office makes those records publicly available for 22 months, Townsend said.

“There’s nothing private about the party check-box,” he said.

“That’s a matter of public record.”

The public pays for the elections, but the state Supreme Court has ruled that political parties, as independent associations, have the right of free association, “so they can require who is allowed to participate in their process,” Townsend said.

Grewell suggested voters worried about their party preferences being displayed so prominently with their signature should deposit their ballots in drop-boxes, from which ballots are delivered directly to the auditor’s offices for tabulation.

Townsend said every election worker has been background-checked and takes an oath ensuring the integrity of the process.

“No one messes with any of the votes,” he said.

Many voters have said asking for their party preference in such a public manner is too personal a query.

“They feel this is something that should be private,” Townsend said.

“I always explain that Washington state is a minority in the nation, that with most other states, you have to register by party and you’re only provided a ballot for party you registered for.”

Some voters want more options to choose from than two parties.

“Some people are saying, hey, I’m an independent, what are my options here,” Grewell said.

Under state law, there are no options for independents — voters must declare a preference for one of the nation’s two major parties for their ballot to be valid.

Grewell said as of Friday, there were 355 challenged ballots.

“Not all of those are undeclared” for the Democratic or Republican Party, she said.

“Some people, they have forgotten to sign — it could be any number of things.”

Grewell said the number of challenged ballots seemed high for an election.

Liz Bumgarner of Sequim, chairwoman of Clallam County Democrats, said the ballot information should be given primarily to political parties and not be made available to the general public.

She, too, suggested voters worried about privacy use drop boxes but defended the process.

“We have a two-party primary system in this country, and the parties, if they didn’t know who was Republican and Democrat, would have to go and contact everyone, and it would be a ridiculous job,” Bumgarner said.

“It’s pretty hard anyway.”

She said that party members are forbidden to use the lists for anything other than canvassing or telephoning members of the party.

“We give it to only special members of the party who bring the list back,” Bumgarner said.

“They don’t leave the building with it.

“It is concerning because perhaps it would be used by groups or people that are not so ethical about the use of it.”

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].

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