Fed up with the established political parties? In Washington state, so are some of the candidates.
Encouraged by the state's unconventional primary system, around 30 candidates on the Aug. 17 ballot have shunned mainstream politics to instead identify with very small or apparently invented parties. Among them: the "Lower Taxes Party," the "Bull Moose Party" — or even "Neither Party."
The growing number of these candidates — there are about twice as many on the ballot as in 2008 — is a quirk of the state's "top-two" primary system in which all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, compete with each other. The two garnering the most votes for a given office advance to the November general election.
First used two years ago following a voter initiative, Washington's system allows candidates to be listed on the ballot as "preferring" any party they wish, though that preference doesn't imply the candidate has been nominated or endorsed by the party.
California recently adopted a similar open primary system, but candidates there will not list their party affiliation on the ballot. Instead, a candidate's party registration would be stated on the secretary of state's website.
In Seattle, a stronghold of liberal Democrats, Ray Carter is challenging a veteran state representative with a self-styled party brand.
Opposed to the GOP's stance on gay rights and really ticked off by the Democrats' fiscal policies, Carter has signed up as "Prefers Reluctantly R. Party" (a limit on the number of characters meant he couldn't spell out Republican.)
"I think that the number of people who are bad fits for either party is increasing," said Carter, who works for an electric-car seller. "And I believe that both parties are going to have to, after the election ... undergo some wrenching self-examination."
Office-seekers can't use profanity on the ballot but most anything else is fair game, even though elections officials urge candidates to avoid absurd or completely invented party names.
Despite their efforts, the system appears to be encouraging experiments in creative political identification. The number of people running under very small or invented party labels has doubled in two years, with Independents surging from just four to 15 in two years. The tally does not count Greens or Libertarians, who have some established presence in Washington.
Most have only a tiny chance of beating an establishment candidate this November. But in a year that has proven volatile for incumbents nationwide, antiestablishment candidates provide another glimpse at the foul mood awaiting political insiders at the polls.
"In general, I think the parties have too much power, and I don't think we need them anymore," said Bob Jeffers-Schroder of Seattle, a one-time Republican running as "Independent - No Party" in a climate-change-focused bid against Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash. "I think they do more harm than good."
With economic malaise running high, it's a decent time to try those kind of candidacies, Western Washington University political science professor Todd Donovan said.
"Third-party, independent candidates get more support when the economy's going bad — people look for a protest vote," Donovan said. "If you assume that there's candidates who are savvy to that, it's a good time to get on the ballot."
This year's crop of nontraditional candidates also coincides with the rise of the tea party movement, the fired-up conservatives who often feel similar disdain for both big government and establishment political machines.
Among them is Rex Brocki of Union Gap, who filed as "Prefers Tea Party" to challenge longtime incumbent Congressman Doc Hastings, R-Wash.
"What professional political operatives will tell you is, (Republicans) don't have to worry about pandering to their base because, in their phrasing, 'Where else are they going to go?'" Brocki said. "Well, that's why I'm running: To give them somewhere else to go."
But even though cranky voters and upstart candidates might grow in a difficult year, the Democratic and Republican parties will remain the default choices for most voters, independent pollster Stuart Elway noted.
"The thing is, by the time we get down to voting, it's two parties," Elway said. "We have this two-party system, and it's all geared toward funneling people into one of those two parties. You can be frustrated with it, but when November comes, that's your choice."
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