Washington State Legislature approves Grange-sponsored blanket primary initiative on February 21, 1935.

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 12/02/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10673

On February 21, 1935, the Washington State Legislature passes Initiative 2, a measure sponsored by the Washington Grange to replace the state's primary election system. The new system of "blanket" primaries drastically reduces the power of political parties to dictate the selection of candidates, removes the requirement that voters disclose their party affiliation, and weakens the long-standing system of patronage hiring for government jobs. The initiative effort is spearheaded by Grange Lecturer Charles W. Hodde (1906-1999), who will go on to a long and influential career in public service. The blanket primary system will withstand all legal challenges until 2003, when the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals deems it unconstitutional. In 2004, the Grange will submit a "top-two" primary initiative to voters, who will approve it. This too will be invalidated by the lower federal courts, but in 2008 the United States Supreme Court will overrule them and hold that the top-two method of selecting candidates does not violate the U. S. Constitution.

Washington's Election System Before 1935

Washington's original 1889 constitution set minimum qualifications for voters but left the nuts and bolts of holding elections up to the legislature to prescribe. In the first statehood session, lawmakers laid down rules that were a testament to the power of the major political parties. Under those rules, candidates were picked primarily at party conventions or at "primary meetings" (held by delegates "representing a political party or principle" (1889-1890 Wash. Sess. Laws, Ch. XIII). The law permitted primary elections, but did not mandate them. Single-party primaries did occur, most often in municipal contests or in elections to pick delegates to the parties' state conventions, who would then select their party's candidates for the general elections. Ultimate control stayed in the hands of the party elite, and it was very rare for a candidate not blessed with his party's favor to appear on a general-election ballot.

It was believed at the time that party conventions were necessary to a functioning democracy -- useful gatherings of like-minded folks who would adequately reflect the will of the mass of voters. But by the early years of the twentieth century it was becoming clear that powerful personalities and corporate interests had largely hijacked the system. Dissatisfaction with vice-like party control grew, and a movement to change the way candidates were selected slowly gathered steam. As early as 1901, a measure to institute what was called a "direct primary" was introduced in the legislature, and died there.

The complete dominance by railroad interests of the 1904 Republican state convention reignited the issue, but in 1905 the legislature again rejected reform. Pressure was building from below, though, and as one commentator put it: "It was believed that the conventions were in many cases controlled by political bosses, and further that these bosses were either controlled by or closely allied with greedy and selfish industrial interests" (Thorson, 119). The Spokane Spokesman-Review was even more direct:

"In these days of smooth politics, two or three men get together in a room of a hotel, and while they smoke a deal is fixed and a long time later the delegates who have been swelling around with big badges flapping on their manly bosoms find out what they must do, and they do it" (Thorson, 116).

The problem was not unique to Washington, and there were calls for the establishment of primary elections in many states. Pushed by the Progressive Movement and a fair portion of the state's newspapers, the Washington legislature in its 1907 session substantially revamped the state's electoral system to loosen party control. Chapter 209 of the Session Laws of 1907 was titled "Nomination of Candidates for Public Office," and it got directly to the point:

"Hereafter, all candidates for elective offices in this State, either State, county, municipal, precinct or congressional, shall be nominated at a direct primary election held in pursuance of this act" (1907 Wash. Laws, Ch. 209, Sec. 2).

From now on, all persons willing to pay a $10 fee and certify that they were qualified voters and members of a specific political party would be placed on the primary ballot. In addition, any political party that had had a candidate win at least 10 percent of the vote in the previous general election was deemed a "major party" and permitted to put forward a party slate of candidates to run in primary elections. This was a step forward for advocates of direct voter control over nominations; primary elections were now mandatory, and voters could select which candidates would advance to the general election. But it was at best a partial success; the major political parties, deeply entrenched, still exercised a degree of control over the process that left many voters dissatisfied.

Another provision of the law was even more troubling. It read: "When he desires to vote at said primary each elector shall have the right to receive the ballot and only the ballot of the party for which he asks" (1907 Session Laws Ch. 209, Sec. 12). In other words, a voter had to declare publicly his (women would not win the vote permanently in Washington until 1910) allegiance to a specific political party before receiving a primary ballot, and could then vote only for candidates from that party.

For some voters, these so-called "direct" primaries were really little improvement over the previous system, and in some ways worse. The loss of voter privacy festered in the public consciousness. There were good reasons that some would not want to reveal their loyalties so openly -- a man could lose his job if he was known to have voted against his employer's interests, others could be excluded from prized patronage jobs by failing to openly select the winning party's ballot at the polls. To at least at few Washingtonians, it seemed that being forced to disclose one's political allegiance in order to vote in a primary was a violation of privacy, perhaps even un-American.

It wasn't long before the state's direct primary was under challenge, but change would be slow in coming. There were growing calls for a system of "blanket" primaries in which voters could choose from a slate of candidate of various parties without revealing their personal political affiliation, if any. The Grange was not first to campaign for this reform; newspaper accounts from 1914 and 1915 credit the Progressive Party, then also known as the Bull Moose Party, of which former Republican Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) was a leading figure. In 1917, Republican Representative Fred W. Hastings of King County's District 46 submitted a blanket-primary bill in the legislature, to no effect. In 1922, the Women's Legislative Council discussed introducing similar legislation, but apparently found little support.

In 1924, an outgrowth of the Progressive Party called the Nonpartisan League, along with like-minded people, campaigned for a blanket primary. They were characterized by the conservative press as "radical groups seeking to destroy the political parties in this state" ("Radicals Reorganizing"). Throughout the remainder of the 1920s and into the early 1930s, every session of the legislature had proposals for a blanket primary put forward, and every such proposal was defeated. So far, however, the state Grange appears to have played little active role in the debate, concentrating its energies on other issues of more pressing importance to its membership. But when it did get involved, it jumped in with both feet.

Enter the Grange

The Washington State Grange, a member of America's oldest farm-based fraternal organization, got its start in Washington Territory in 1873 when several local chapters were organized in the Walla Walla area under the aegis of the Oregon State Grange. As statehood approached for Washington in 1889, concerns about some provisions in the draft of the state constitution led to the formation of the independent Washington State Grange. Organizers met at the Pioneer Store in Camas (then called La Camas) in Clark County and there, on September 10, 1889, just two months before statehood was granted, the Washington State Grange was formed. It immediately dove into the political arena, advocating for issues of importance to its membership. This was just the beginning; the Washington Grange would go on to become a powerful political force, and in the early twenty-first century it remains an effective advocate for farmers and those who live in rural areas and small towns. In 2013 there were considerably more than 300 Granges in Washington (more than any other state), and a total membership nearing 50,000.

From its start, the Washington State Grange most often reflected the priorities of the Progressive Movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, fighting for such things as a graduated state income tax, public water and power utilities, and increased funding for teachers and education. In 1932, the organization's attention turned to the way voters elected their representatives in government. At its annual convention in Tacoma that June, delegates approved a blanket primary "for all political offices instead of the regular party tickets" ("Grange Opposed to Resubmission"). Two years later, in April 1934, newspapers were taking note that the Washington State Grange "has sponsored three bills, one proposing a blanket primary" ("Gilbert Says: Initiative Crop Is Bumper One").

Charlie Hodde

Charles W. Hodde (1906-1999) was born in Missouri, left home to travel shortly after graduating from high school, and ended up in Colville, Stevens County, in 1928. Within two years he was leasing a dairy farm there and had joined the Grange, where he soon earned a reputation as a persuasive advocate for issues of importance to farmers. In 1932, the Grange sent him to Seattle to give speeches in support of a state income tax, an initiative that passed handily but was later ruled unconstitutional. Largely on the strength of that performance, in 1933 Hodde was elected Washington Grange Lecturer, the organization's third-highest office. He was a natural public speaker with a bottomless trove of homespun stories and an ability to explain complex ideas in understandable terms. As Grange Lecturer, he was responsible for the organization's educational programs, and this soon evolved into a role as the main lobbyist for the Grange at the state legislature.

In his oral history, Hodde said that he "talked the Grange into sponsoring the blanket primary by initiative" (1997 Oral History, 4). Whether that is entirely accurate or not, it is undisputed that he took the laboring oar in pushing the measure to success. Hodde at first started to organize a drive to gather signatures to place the measure on the ballot for voters to enact, but soon realized that there was insufficient time to do so. However, an alternative path existed. Under Washington law, an initiative could be presented to the voters directly or to the legislature, and more time was available to gather signatures for the latter course. If sufficient signatures were collected to send an initiative to the legislature, it was treated in many respects as a normal piece of legislation. Lawmakers had three options: They could pass it into law as written, they could submit it to the voters for approval or rejection, or they could write an alternative measure and submit both to the voters. If lawmakers refused to do anything, the initiative would be put to public vote during the next election.

Hodde recommended that the Grange abandon the initiative to the people and prepare one for submission to the legislature. The stated purpose would be to "allow properly registered voters to vote for their choice at any primary election for any candidate for each office, regardless of political affiliation and without a declaration of political faith or adherence on the part of the voter" ("History of the Blanket Primary ... ").

Time was still a factor, however, and gathering signatures was in those days a slow and arduous process. Then Hodde had a great idea, as he later described:

"So I organized a campaign and we had signature gatherers at many, many polling places with instructions: Don't talk to anybody before they go in to vote, that's illegal. When they come out, just ask them, 'Did you have to tell them what party you belonged to to vote?' 'Sure did.' 'Would you like to be able to vote without doing that?' 'I sure would.' And ninety percent of the people signed the petitions that came out" (1997 Oral History, 4).

Grange workers, assisted by members of organized labor, collected nearly 100,000 signatures on election day alone, giving them more than enough to bring the blanket primary initiative directly to the legislature. Even before lawmakers met for the 24th Regular Session on January 14, 1935, Hodde was in Olympia, lobbying for the initiative's passage. The measure was approved by the Senate on February 5, 1935, by the House on February 21, and became effective at midnight on June 12 that year.

Henceforth, there would be a single ballot that carried the names of all candidates for each office, with their party affiliation (if any) identified. As for the voters, the law stated:

"Every qualified person, properly registered as a voter in his election precinct, shall be entitled to participate in the primary election. When he desires to vote at said primary, each elector shall have the right to receive the ballot, whereupon he shall retire to one of the booths and without undue delay mark the ballot received by him and fold it so that its face shall be concealed" (1935 Wash. Laws, Ch. 26, Sec. 3).

The passage of the blanket primary law was considered a major victory for the state's progressive forces, and Hodde was given much of the credit. He later recalled that on the day it was enacted:

"[The Spokane] Spokesman-Review ... had a front-page article, 'Charlie Hodde, King of Lobbyists. He did it.' Because they had been running editorials: 'This may be a good idea, but you'll never get those that were elected under the old system to vote to change it.' But we did. And so I got a lot of the credit. Maybe more than I'm entitled to for getting that passed ... " (1997 Oral History, 4).

Charlie Hodde would go on to have a distinguished political career as state representative and Speaker of the House. He later would serve on a number of state and federal boards and commissions and head various state agencies, including the Department of Revenue under Governor Dixy Lee Ray (1914-1994). In later years he had a lucrative lobbying and consulting practice, and even after retirement was often called upon by politicians and journalists alike to tap his deep knowledge of the practices and personalities of state politics.

The Fate of the Blanket Primary

The blanket primary was not popular with everyone, but it was the law of the state for 68 years. Some found it troublesome that voters could split the ticket, voting Republican in one race and Democratic in another. More problematic, particularly as party get-out-the-vote campaigns became more sophisticated, was the potential ability of voters of one party to vote in the primary for the weakest candidate from the other party, thus elevating that candidate to the general election where he or she could be easily defeated. There were various attempts to invalidate the blanket primary over the years, but none were successful until 2003, when the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, following a U. S. Supreme Court decision from a case challenging California's blanket primary, held that allowing voters of one party to dictate the candidate of the other party through cross-party voting violated the political parties' constitutional right of free association.

The state Grange stayed in the fight, and in 2004 sponsored Initiative 872 to establish a top-two primary in Washington. Under its provisions, all candidates in partisan primary races are listed on the same ballot and each can indicate his or her party preference or identify as independent. Voters can vote for any candidate for any office, and the top two vote getters for each office, regardless of party, move on to the general election. Under the top-two system, it is possible that both candidates for an office in the general election will be from the same political party. On the other hand, it maximally enhances voters' freedom of choice. The measure was on the November 2, 2004, general election ballot and approved by a vote of 1,632,225 (59.8 percent) to 1,095,190 (40.2 percent).

The law was challenged immediately, and the Grange stepped forward to help defend it. In July 2005, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals struck it down, only to be overruled by the U.S. Supreme Court three years later. Subsequent attempts by the major political parties to overturn the "top two" system have been unsuccessful and in 2013 it is still the law of the state.


Sources: Article VI , Constitution of the State of Washington (1889), Washington State Legislature website accessed November 19, 2013 (http://www.leg.wa.gov/LawsAndAgencyRules/Documents/12-2010-WAStateConstitution.pdf); "Election Laws," 1889-1890 Wash. Sess. Laws, Ch. XIII; "Nomination of Candidates for Public Office," 1907 Wash. Laws, Ch. 209; "Elections: Primary Blanket Ballot," 1935 Wash. Laws, Ch. 26; Winston B. Thorson, "Washington State Nominating Conventions," The Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 2 (April 1944), 99-119; Charles Hodde: An Oral History, v. 2 (Olympia: Washington State Oral History Program, 1986), available at Washington State Secretary of State Legacy Project website accessed November 15, 2013 (http://www.sos.wa.gov/legacyproject/collection/pdf/hodde86.pdf); Charles Hodde: An Oral History, v. 3 (Olympia: Washington State Oral History Program, 1997), available at Washington State Secretary of State Legacy Project website accessed November 15, 2013 (http://www.sos.wa.gov/legacyproject/collection/pdf/hodde.pdf); "History of the Blanket Primary in Washington," Washington State Secretary of State website accessed November 21, 2013 (http://www.sos.wa.gov/elections/bp_history.aspx); "Elections & Voting: Initiatives to the Legislature," Washington State Secretary of State website accessed November 21, 2013 (http://www.sos.wa.gov/elections/initiatives/statistics_initleg.aspx); "Primary Election Bill Beaten," The Seattle Times, March 6, 1901, p. 3; "Bull Moose of County in Convention," Ibid., September 15, 1914, p. 2; "Wilson Interests Defeats Direct Primary," Ibid., March 5, 1909, p. 3; "New Bills in House," Ibid., January 17, 1917, p. 9; "Censorship of Movies Is Held Up by Women," Ibid., May 19, 1922, p. 4; "Radicals Reorganizing," Ibid., November 23, 1924, p. 4; "Grange Opposed to Resubmission," Ibid., June 12, 1932, p. 5; J. W. Gilbert, "Gilbert Says: Initiative Crop Is Bumper One," Ibid., April 15, 1934, p. 4; "Eighty-five New Legislative Enactments Will Become Effective at Midnight," Spokane Daily Chronicle, June 12, 1935, p. 3; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Hodde, Charles William (1906-1999)" (by John Caldbick), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed November 21, 2013).

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