FAQ: Washington's March 10 presidential primary

Ballots for Washington's presidential primary have been mailed. What you need to know.

Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar and Tom Steyer at a Democratic debate

Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar and Tom Steyer try to get the attention of the moderators during a Democratic presidential primary debate, Friday, Feb. 7, 2020 at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. (Elise Amendola/AP)

Washington state has never had a presidential primary quite like this before. 

For the first time, Washington’s presidential primary election will matter for voters of both parties. Unlike in years past, the results in 2020 will actually determine which presidential candidates will win Washington state’s delegates to the Democratic National Convention. 

That means, for Democrats, this is the first time the primary election in Washington state will actually count for something beyond vague bragging rights. 

While the state Republican Party in Washington has previously used the primary election to allocate delegates to candidates, the state’s Democrats have not. 

Nationwide, a candidate needs to win 1,991 Democratic delegates to secure the Democratic nomination, which will be formally decided during the party’s July 13-16 convention in Milwaukee.

Washington’s presidential primary is also being held two months earlier this year — on Tuesday, March 10 — making the results potentially more influential in shaping the course of the national race. 

To get ready for Washington’s new and more relevant presidential primary, we asked readers to submit the top questions they have about the election.

Here are the most common questions we received — and some of the answers we dug up.

Do I have to declare a party?

Yes, at least for the purposes of this election. 

You don’t have to register for a party in advance, but in order for your vote to count, you must check a box on the outside of your ballot envelope that identifies you as either a Republican or a Democrat. The party declaration you choose must match the actual ballot you fill out. That means you can’t select a Republican candidate and also choose the Democratic Party declaration — and expect either party to take your vote into account.

Your party declaration applies only to your vote in the 2020 presidential primary, and doesn’t register you as a Democrat or Republican for future Washington state elections.

The party declaration is something required by each of the political parties. 

“We have to certify to the Democratic National Committee that the only people participating in our primary are members of the party, or who identify as Democrats,” said Will Casey, a spokesperson for the Washington State Democrats.

Want to know in advance what you’ll be signing? 

The Democratic Party declaration reads: “I declare that my party preference is the Democratic Party and I will not participate in the nomination process of any other political party for the 2020 Presidential election.”

Meanwhile, the Republican declaration goes as follows: “I declare that I am a Republican and I have not participated and will not participate in the 2020 precinct caucus or convention system of any other party.”

A copy of each party’s ballot will be mailed to each registered voter in Washington state, so you don’t have to request a ballot from one party or the other. 

For the 2020 presidential primary, Washington does not have an unaffiliated ballot you can fill out. Such an option was considered, but then rejected by the state Legislature when lawmakers made changes to the presidential primary last year.

Is my party preference public?

Yes. Whichever party ballot you select will become a matter of public record. While the specific candidate you choose will not be listed, your public voter file will reflect that you participated in either the Republican or Democratic primary in 2020.

The record of which party you declared stays on your voter file for 60 days, then is removed by the state. But during those 60 days, anyone can request the information and get a copy. 

The political parties are each provided a list of people who participated in their party’s primary. Beyond that, however, other groups may create their own lists of Democratic and Republican voters, using the public information from the voter rolls.

Casey, the state Democratic Party spokesperson, said people who vote as Democrats shouldn’t expect to be flooded with mail requesting that they donate to the Democratic Party. They also won’t get spammed with emails from the party, he said.

However, the party-affiliation data can still be used by political campaigns to help them target voters with direct mail or door-to-door outreach in future elections.

Who is on the ballot?

Because Washington is a vote-by-mail state, the candidates on the ballot were finalized in January, when there were still more than a dozen people competing to become the Democratic nominee. That means some candidates appearing on the March 10 ballot have since dropped out of the race. 

The 13 Democratic candidates on the ballot are: Michael Bennet, Joseph. R. Biden, Michael Bloomberg, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Amy Klobuchar, Deval Patrick, Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer, Elizabeth Warren and Andrew Yang.

A fourteenth option for Democratic voters will let them select an “uncommitted” option, meaning they would prefer that the state’s delegates to the party’s national convention be unallocated, rather than awarded to one of the candidates. 

For Republicans, President Donald Trump is the only candidate who will appear on the party’s primary ballot. 

The candidate lineups were submitted by each of the major political parties and then certified by the Washington secretary of state, the state’s chief elections official.

Both presidential primary ballots still allow you to write in a candidate, if you wish to do so.

How are the results used, exactly?

Washington has 89 pledged delegates to be assigned to Democratic presidential candidates based solely on the results of the state’s presidential primary.

Those 89 delegates, when they go to the Democratic National Convention in July, will be obligated to vote for specific candidates based on the outcome of the March 10 election.

However, there’s a caveat. If no candidate wins the nomination after the first round of voting at the Democratic National Convention, the convention will become contested — and then Washington’s 89 delegates can switch their votes. At that point, the delegates will no longer be bound by the state’s primary results.

Most of the 89 delegates from Washington state will be geographically distributed by congressional district. A candidate needs to win at least 15% of the vote in a congressional district to win any of that district’s delegates. Candidates who don’t meet the 15% threshold won’t win any delegates from that congressional district. Fifty-eight of Washington’s pledged 89 delegates will be calculated this way.

The remaining 31 pledged delegates will be allocated based on the result of the statewide vote. Just as before, candidates need to win at least 15% statewide to claim any of these statewide delegates. Candidates winning less than 15% of the statewide vote won’t win any delegates from this statewide pool.

Even with those restrictions, multiple Democratic candidates are likely to amass delegates from Washington and get a portion of the state’s delegates at the national convention.

Meanwhile, on the Republican side, since President Trump is the only candidate on the ballot, he’s pretty much a lock to win all of Washington’s 43 delegates to the Republican National Convention this year — unless a very strong write-in campaign succeeds, but that's extremely unlikely. 

Why did they get rid of the caucuses?

For the state’s Republicans, relying on the primary election results to choose a nominee isn’t new: In 2016, all of Washington’s delegates to the Republican National Convention were allocated to candidates based on the outcome of the presidential primary, rather than caucus meetings.

For Democrats in Washington state, however, 2020 marks a turning point. Never before has the state Democratic party used the presidential primary to decide which candidates will win delegates.

State party officials voted to change the system last year, in part because of complaints that the party’s caucus meetings in 2016 were disorganized and chaotic. Some of the 2016 caucus meetings — typically held in community locations such as schools and libraries — ran hours long. Critics expressed concern that the process made it difficult for people with children or disabilities to participate, as well as those who work weekends or were prevented from participating on Saturday for religious reasons.

Caucus participation was also much lower than in the presidential primary, which took place in May 2016, even though the primary had no bearing on the race. While about 230,000 people statewide took part in the Democratic precinct caucuses, about 802,000 voted in the nonbinding Democratic primary two months later.

The two contests also produced different winners. Although U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont swept Washington's 2016 caucuses, winning about 73% support at precinct caucus meetings, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won the state's beauty contest primary, attracting about 52% of the primary vote.

That, too, caused some to question the caucus system.

Both parties will still use caucus meetings to choose the individuals who will attend the national conventions as delegates. But the meetings will no longer be the method used to bind those delegates’ votes to particular candidates — that’s the primary’s job now.

If you are interested in becoming a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, the state Democratic Party has a website with more information about the process.

For Republicans, more information on the caucus and delegate selection process can be found in this guide

Are there still superdelegates?

Yes, but not in the way you are probably thinking. The power of Democratic superdelegates — party leaders and elected officials who serve as automatic delegates to the Democratic National Convention — was significantly curtailed heading into 2020.

In 2016, Sanders supporters became particularly dissatisfied with how so many of the party’s superdelegates, symbols of the Democratic establishment, threw their weight behind Clinton early in the race. While over the years superdelegates have never tipped the Democratic nomination to a candidate who wasn’t also leading in primary and caucus results, they did pad Clinton’s delegate totals early on, causing controversy during the 2016 race over whether they biased the contest in her favor.

However, two years ago the Democratic National Committee changed its rules, so that the same process won’t play out this year. 

According to the new rules, superdelegates must sit out the first ballot at the Democratic National Convention — that is, unless one candidate has such a large supermajority of votes that the superdelegates’ votes won’t make a difference anyway.

Essentially, that means superdelegates won’t matter unless there is a contested convention in which one candidate fails to secure enough delegates from primaries and caucuses to win the nomination outright.

Washington has 18 superdelegates, who are automatically selected to go to the convention because of their roles as party leaders or elected officials. But by design this year, they won’t have the same influence they had in 2016.

Superdelegates from Washington state include all the state’s members of Congress, several elected members of the Democratic National Committee, the state party chair and vice chair, and the governor.

Can I rank my top three candidates?

No. For your vote to count, you have to choose only one candidate from one party’s ballot, and leave the other party ballot blank.

That means no picking second- or third-choice candidates. 

While some Washington lawmakers have talked about allowing ranked-choice voting in some local elections in the future, those conversations haven’t really gone anywhere.

Depending on what kind of ranked-choice voting system is envisioned, it is possible it could require changes in state law for such an option to be available in future presidential primaries.

How was March 10 chosen? Why the earlier date?

In 2016, the last time Washington held a presidential primary, the election’s significance was nominal in part because it was held in late May. By then, Donald Trump was the only Republican candidate left in the race, and Hillary Clinton had already amassed a substantial delegate lead over Democratic rival Bernie Sanders (although Washington’s primary results didn’t contribute to her delegate count).

At the time, Washington’s late-May primary date made it one of the last states in the nation to weigh in on the presidential race.

In deciding last year to move the presidential primary date, state lawmakers agreed the earlier date should help make Washington’s election more meaningful, instead of an afterthought. 

The second Tuesday in March was preferred because it is much closer to the start of the presidential nominating process. This year, Washington’s March 10 primary will take place a week after Super Tuesday, the day when more than a dozen states hold their nominating contests.

“I think we could see record-breaking turnout,” Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman said this month.

Wyman, one of the biggest supporters of moving the primary date, also had hoped holding the election earlier would cause presidential candidates to come to Washington and actually campaign, rather than just to hold private fundraising events. 

So far, several Democratic candidates have made campaign stops in Washington, and more are scheduled or could visit in the coming days.

Last year, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts held a public event that attracted 15,000 people to Seattle Center, while New York entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who has since dropped out of the race, held a rally that drew about 1,000 to Gas Works Park.

Also last year, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg held a low-priced fundraiser at the Showbox, while Vice President Joe Biden made multiple fundraising stops in the Seattle area. In September, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota spoke with voters at a Seattle coffee shop.

Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders — who won New Hampshire’s Democratic primary last week and who also was a top performer this month in Iowa — held a campaign rally Monday, Feb. 17 at the Tacoma Dome. 

Warren's campaign also held a free campaign event at the Seattle Center Armory on Saturday, Feb. 22.

If I am 17 but will turn 18 before the November election, can I vote in the primary? 

Sorry, you are out of luck, at least for now. Current Washington state law says that people need to be 18 years old to vote in any election.

There is legislation under consideration in Olympia that would change the law, to allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries as long as they are scheduled to turn 18 before the November general election.

But even if that measure ends up passing this year, it won't be in effect in time for the March 10 primary.

Can I change my vote, if I haven't mailed my ballot yet?

King County Elections offers an option if you've changed your mind about who to vote for before you mail your ballot.

You can print a replacement ballot from their website. This is also a good place to get a new ballot and a new envelope if you have misplaced the one that came in the mail.

This story has been updated to address additional reader questions about changing your vote in the presidential primary.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos is formerly a Crosscut staff reporter who covered state politics and the Legislature.