Deciphering the Oregon Open Primary Initiative

By Simon McMurchie '15

This November, the Oregon ballot will present voters with the Oregon Open Primary Initiative (Measure 90), a proposal that seeks to simplify the process of electing state officials by eliminating party-specific voting. The subject is already attracting criticism and admiration from all portions of the political spectrum and if approved, the change would be noticeable.

The motive behind the bill originates in the growth of independent (little i) voters in the state of Oregon. According to the office of the Secretary of the State, as of Aug. 14, there were 503,689 non-affiliated registered voters in the state, about 150,000 and 220,000 behind the Republican and Democratic parties, respectively.

The logo of the Equal Vote Coalition, the organization behind the ballot initiative. (Photo: Screenshot)

The logo of the Equal Vote Coalition, the organization behind the ballot initiative. (Photo: Screenshot)

Under the current primary system, each party holds its own primary election, with the highest tallied candidate then placed on the general ballot sent out to all voters in October. Only the voters registered in each party can vote in their individual primaries. So, Republicans can decide whether Tim Carr or Dennis Richardson should represent their party in the general gubernatorial election, but have no say whether the Democratic candidate is John Kitzhaber or Ifeanyichukwu C Diru (no, really, look it up).

Importantly, under this current system, non-affiliated voters have no say in any of the primaries and thus can only choose between the candidates that the parties put forth. When 23 percent of the state’s population is unaffiliated (including 40 percent of those from ages 18 to 44, according to Moore Information), a sizable chunk of Oregon voters won’t have a chance to vote in either primary.

There is obvious potential for conflict here, as a candidate could feasibly have the backing of a large portion of voters but not enough support for their party to be put on the final ballot. Proponents of Measure 90 argue that this often results in a final ballot that only features candidates from extreme ends of their individual spectrums, as they were the “most Republican” or “most Democratic” candidates.

The Oregon Open Primary Initiative gets rid of this conflict by eliminating the party-specific primary system, and replacing it with a two-round general election, in which all voters would be presented with a primary ballot featuring all candidates, regardless of party, with the top two vote-getters then being placed on the final ballot in November, again, regardless of party. It would apply to nearly all partisan offices in the state, including U.S. Congressmen, Governor and the Secretary of State.

A similar initiative (Measure 65) failed on the 2008 ballot, 66 percent to 34 percent, and the new measure isn’t without its detractors. The Oregon Citizen’s Initiative Review Commission, a panel of randomly selected and demographically balanced voters from around the state, voted 14-5 in opposition to the measure. The group pointed out that primary elections feature much worse voter turnout than general elections, with a nationwide average of less than 15 percent, including other states with a top-two primary system like the one that Measure 90 proposes. This means the majority of voters who only turn out for the general election would find themselves with a choice between two candidates instead of the variety usually present on the ballot.

The measure is endorsed by both gubernatorial candidates, Democrat John Kitzhaber and Republican Dennis Richardson, and opposed by the Democratic Party of Oregon and the Republican Party of Oregon. A mid-August poll financed by opponents to the measure found that 34 percent of voters planned on voting yes, while a poll financed by supporters found 45 percent were in favor going into the election.

The lack of a majority during polling usually isn’t a good sign for ballot measures, but the chance to make an impact in the state political system shouldn’t be taken lightly by Oregonians. When November comes, voters should look at the list of candidates and recognize the opportunity to decide not only which candidate will represent them, but how that candidate gets on the ballot in the first place.