Saturday, August 30, 2008

Oregon Open Primary Gives All Voters a Say in Who's on the Ballot in November

by Sal Peralta, August 30, 2008

During the coming months, various interests will be debating the Open Primary system that will be on Oregon's ballot as Measure 65 this November.


The Open Primary will create a single primary in which any Oregon voter may vote for any candidate on the primary ballot, and the top two candidates will move on to the general election.

Opponents of the measure have expressed concerns that the Open Primary will raise the cost of our elections, take the power to nominate candidates away from political parties, and harm minor political parties, effectively denying them a spot on the November ballot.


The Open Primary is about giving all voters a say in who will appear on the ballot in November. Oregon's current system discriminates against the 400,000 Oregon voters who are not affiliated with a major party. Because these voters do not have a choice on the May Primary ballot in the most important races, most of them choose to stay home.

Democrats, who had a contested Presidential Primary turned out 77 percent of their voters in the May election. 55 percent of Republicans turned out, while the turnout among non-affiliated voters and minor party members was less than 30 percent -- mostly because they had nothing to vote for except for possibly a local ballot measure or a non-partisan primary.

Even opponents of the measure, such as Lewis and Clark Professor, Paul Gronke, a partisan Democrat, concede that the Open Primary will likely increase turnout among non-affiliated voters by at least 3-5% -- though proponents, such as former Secretaries of State Phil Keisling and Norma Paulus, contend that the increase in turnout will likely be much higher across all political parties and NAV's.


During the current election cycle, 44 percent of legislative races, including 8 out of 15 senate races, and 2 out of 5 statewide races, will not be contested in November, meaning that the primary election may result in a candidate being elected to public office despite only having the suport of 12 to 13 percent of voters in a given legislative district.

The general election in such races is really more of a coronation than a contest. The Open Primary will give voters in many of these uncontested districts an honest choice in November.


Though it is true that some legislative changes will need to be made in order to protect the ballot status of most minor parties in Oregon, and the federal status of all political parties, there is no reason to suppose that these housekeeping measures will not move through the Oregon legislature.


Under Oregon╩╝s current system, minor political parties do not appear on the primary ballot. The Open Primary will give them access to the primary ballot for the first time in the history of the state.

Moreover, the Open Primary will give Independents and other minor parties that choose to cross-endorse candidates more ballot access, not less. Under the current system, minor political parties that choose to cross-nominate candidates may not have their names printed on the ballot. Under the Open Primary, every political party will have the power to endorse candidates and have those endorsements appear on the ballot.


The current system also sets up an election calendar that badly discriminates against minor political parties.

We cannot guarantee credible Independent candidates a one-on-one general election -- the only type of election where minor party candidates have any chance of winning -- until June or later. In some cases, as in House District 29 where the Independents ran Terry Rilling, a former Mayor of Cornelius, we did not know whether we would have a one-n-one race until August 26th.

In another case, we have cross-nominated Joel Haugen for US Congress. Haugen won the Republican nomination with more than 70 percent of the vote, and was the unanimous choice of the Independent Party's nominating caucus. But the only way for him to appear on the ballot as an Independent is for him to give up his Republican nomination, meaning that he could face a Republican opponent in November if the Republicans hold a nominating convention in the next few weeks.


Oregon is one of only three states that has no limits of any kind on political contributions. We need campaign finance reform to help restore government to the hands of the People of this state. However, those concerns are quite independent of this particular measure, and it is worth mentioning that both Paulus and Keisling are on record as being in support of a reasonable system of contribution limits and/or publicly financed elections.


The Open Primary will result in a less polarized Oregon, and an Oregon where non-affiliated voters and Independents have a greater role to play in our democratic process. In my view, Independents and non-affiliated voters will benefit from playing on a more level playing field, rather than one that is slanted to benefit the major political parties.

Your Mileage May Vary.

Sal Peralta blogs at


danmeek said...

This is the second time I have left this comment. Maybe it will appear this time.

Measure 65 will destroy minor parties in Oregon, reduce voter choices, confuse the ballots, and encourage dirty politicking.

Today, Oregon's six minor parties can provide good alternatives to the Democratic and Republican candidates in the November general election. Measure 65 will stop this.

Fewer choices. Measure 65 will abolish the Pacific Green, Constitution, Working Families, and Peace parties by removing their legal basis to exist (getting 1% of the vote in a statewide general election).

Measure 65 is also intended by its sponsors to remove all minor party and citizen-sponsored candidates from the general election ballot, including those supported by tens of thousands of signatures.

More Dirty Tricks. Measure 65 will allow effective ballot sabotage.

Under Measure 65, anyone can register as, say, a "Republican" and immediately file to run for public office, with "Registered: Republican" next to his name on the ballot, whether or not anyone in the Republican Party knows him (he may be a Nazi, Communist, convicted child molester, etc.).

Each party will try to reduce the resulting voter confusion by "endorsing" a candidate in each race. This means Measure 65 will replace the major party primaries with backroom "endorsement" deals. It will also force minor parties to "endorse" major party candidates they do not agree with, just to oppose the strangers on the ballot who suddenly claim to be "their" candidates.

Primary elections could become a game of "ringers," with political consultants recruiting phony candidates just to split the votes of the other parties. Republican consultants could recruit people to register and file as "Democratic" candidates, thereby splitting the Democratic vote and allowing two Republican candidates to win the "top two" primary and proceed to the general election, alone. Democrats could recruit phony "Republicans." Both of them could recruit phony "Independents." Every party in every primary election can be sabotaged this way, under Measure 65.

Expect a confusing ballot, with a dozen or more candidates for each major office who are "Registered" and/or "Endorsed" by the surviving parties.

Oregon Indpendent said...

I have tremendous respect for Dan, but his "sky-is-falling" analysis simply doesn't hold water.

None of the problems he raises about dirty tricks and so forth did not happen in Washington state's experience with their open primary, and have not happened during the decades since Oregon has moved to a similar system of top two non-partisan elections in state and local races.

As I pointed out, some of the problems he raises about minor political parties maintaining ballot access will need to be addressed with a couple of easy and minor fixes in the legislative session -- such as moving the 1 percent requirement for maintaining party status from the general election to the primary election.

The fact of the matter is that Oregon has not elected a single minor party candidate in more than 100 years to state office. Yet minor party candidates are elected all the time under top-two systems that are similar to the open primary.

Oregon Indpendent said...

I have tremendous respect for Dan, who is one of Oregon's most prominent public-interest advocates, but his "sky-is-falling" analysis simply doesn't hold water.

None of the problems he raises about dirty tricks and so forth happened in Washington state's experience with their open primary, and have not happened during the time since most local Oregon governments and counties moved to a similar system of top two elections in county and local races.

We should have such problems as dozens of candidates running for public office in Oregon.

As I pointed out, some of the problems he raises about minor political parties maintaining ballot access will need to be addressed with a couple of easy and minor fixes in the legislative session -- such as moving the 1 percent requirement for maintaining party status from the general election to the primary election.

As to the other supposed "harms" to minor political parties...

The fact of the matter is that Oregon has not elected a single minor party candidate in more than 100 years to state office. By contrast, minor party candidates are elected all the time under top-two systems that are similar to the open primary.

Indeed, the best prospects for electing a member of a minor party in Oregon in 2008 will come in the top-two non-partisan race for Mayor of Eugene where Jim Torrey, an Independent, stands a good chance of being elected as the next Mayor of Eugene.

Lindapendent said...

How about a little disclosure here? I'll put my cards on the table.

I'm an attorney with a lot of election law experience and I'm personally committed to direct democracy. I've worked on and drafted statewide ballot measures, Public Utility District formation petitions, recall and referral petitions and local initiative drafting for 30 years.

Altho I was the sponsor of the petition drive to form the Independent Party of Oregon, the IPO has taken no position on the so-called "open primary," BM 65.

In fact, IPO is one of only 2 of the minor and emerging parties in Oregon which would survive the effects of BM 65, which will wipe out parties with fewer than 10,000 registered members who now maintain their legal status by running candidates who receive at least 1% of the vote in statewide general elections. I do not want to see the Constitution, Green, Working Families and Peace parties silenced.

I have absolutely no financial ties to BM 65, pro or con, and I am not being paid for this post--I am opposed to BM 65 because it's poorly drafted. It will reduce meaningful citizen involvement in collective action and direct democracy. It was put on the ballot by big money interests which will get the candidates they shower money on under BM 65.

While commentator Sal Peralta has invaluably assisted the IPO, he neglected to disclose to this audience that his firm was paid tens of thousands of dollars to collect signatures to put BM 65 on the ballot.

Needless to mention, commentator Dan Meek is not being paid for his opinion either, formed after reading the measure and from his decades of fighting big money interest in Oregon politics.

BM 65 Makes Special Interests Even More Powerful in Picking Candidates.

Now, why would Oregon's largest land speculators, industry lobbyists, and a smelter owner pay a lot of money to get BM 65 on the ballot?

OR has no campaign contribution limits at all--none. Most of you reading this live in the 45 states that actually limit money in state races, so you may not realize how totally corrupting unlimited money from special interests can be.

OR votes by mail exclusively. The May primary ballots go out to voters in April. That means the money race for enough cash to make the top-two will start in the winter. The big funders will "anoint" the top-two and then "elect" the winner in the (even more) expensive November general election.

Stifles citizen voices.
Independent voters engage in personal democracy, they want their votes to count. But actual political strength and the power to change history come from the other great parts of the First Amendment--our freedoms of association and to collectively petition the government.

A vote is an individual act, concerted action is what brought about Abolition, women's suffrage, trust busting, the social safety net, environmental protection, the end to the last tragic, pointless war.

A robust democracy needs more voices, often brought to prominence through political campaigns. Killing minor parties and wiping out citizen sponsored candidates is bad for Oregon. (in Oregon candidates can now get on the ballot thru petition or through assemblies of 1000 voters)

In practice, the need for insurgent and competitive candidates cannot be known until after the May primary. This was the case in 1930. Julius Meier was drafted by citizens to run as an independent candidate for governor when both the major parties selected the candidates hand-picked by the power companies. Meier won because he gave voters a real choice.

Too many drafting flaws to describe in detail.
The Bill is poorly drafted. It fails to integrate dozens of current election law statutes.

It deprives the existing parties of the right to "nominate" candidates. "Nomination" has legal significance. Eliminating this party right was deemed a federal First Amendment violation by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals (the appellate level just below the US Supreme Court) in a case challenging Virgina law. This caused the State of Virgina to alter its compulsory open primary system.

It does not harmonize with federal election law.

Don't Vote for an admittedly flawed measure.
Voting for a hastily designed measure in the hopes it will get "fixed" is a bad idea. Do we want elected legislators to vote for any old thing and then promise to "fix" it somehow, sometime? As citizen legislators who vote on ballot measures, we should hold ourselves to a high standard.

Read BM 65 and understand it before you vote. If it needs "a fix" to make it work, then vote "NO."

danmeek said...

Sal, the political operatives in Washington had only a few weeks to recruit ringers, as virtually all legal observers believed that the U.S. Supreme Court would not overturn the 9th Circuit's decision striking down the Washington top-two initiative. Wait for 2010. Or examine the experience in Louisiana, where often a dozen or more candidates file in the top two primary, and some winners have emerged with around 20% of the vote.

Pointing to Oregon's nonpartisan races makes no sense. You cannot split the vote of the opposing parties by adding a ringer to a nonpartisan race, because there are no party labels on that ballot at all. The vast majority of voters in the USA base their vote on party label. That is why adding ringer candidates to split the vote of any party will be such a problem.

danmeek said...

Sal says no minor party candidates have won major office in Oregon. But Measure 65 also removes any opportunity for candidates to qualify for the general election ballot by voter petition. In 1930, Julius Meier, who qualified by petition, was elected Governor with 54% of the vote in a 3-way race.