18 Dec

Oregon primary rules make voting an exclusive club

This fall, when Oregon’s Democratic and Republican parties were united in horror against Measure 90, it seemed that there was bipartisan enthusiasm – an unusual phrase these days – for our current election system. The parties’ joint opposition to letting everyone vote in the May primary, and putting the top two finishers from any party in the November general election ballot, came in such deep red and blue colors that it seemed our current system was as deeply rooted in Oregon as a Douglas fir.

But as the campaign pounded away in October, Greg Leo, former executive director of the Oregon Republican Party and an active figure against Measure 90, commented, “If it does fail, we’re still going to sit down and think about how we can improve the system. What do you do about non-affiliated voters?”
Last week, Rep. Val Hoyle, D-Eugene, the newly re-elected House majority leader and prominent campaigner against Measure 90, declared, “I see the value and benefit in allowing non-affiliated voters to vote in spring primaries. A third of our voters are locked out of our system, and I think that’s wrong.”

Possibly in the new legislature that begins next month, we might be able to find a bipartisan position on opening the system besides “No.”

After two sweeping defeats by the voters, “Top Two” is likely headed for the bottom. Most Oregonians seem to prefer voting by party, and it might also have been hard to find two top candidates when the great majority of our legislative races seem to have only one real contender.

But if that’s not the solution, it doesn’t mean there’s no problem. On a practical basis, Oregon still has most of its election contests decided in the May party primaries, and it’s one of just a dozen states that allow only registered party members to vote in those primaries. And while Oregon clings to that kind of partisan identity politics, the percentage of Oregonians willing to declare – or admit to – Democratic or Republican party membership is dropping relentlessly, from 98 percent in 1960 to less than 70 percent this year.

The challenge is to keep Oregonians’ loss of interest in parties from turning into a loss of interest in politics. That probably only matters if you think representative government is supposed to be representative.

“People say, Measure 90 was voted down, why do we have to do anything?” says Hoyle. “I think we do have to do something.”

Looking at 38 other states, the legislature would seem to have a wide range of somethings to choose from. After the burial of Measure 90, Oregon isn’t about to drop registration by party, as some states have. But some states allow any voters to pick the primary they want to vote in, some allow a one-time primary day party declaration, and some allow unaffiliated voters to vote in any primary.

Hoyle says the last option is “intriguing,” and that she’s working with her staff and the Legislative Counsel to devise a new approach, saying the state constitution doesn’t let the legislature tell parties who can vote in their primaries.

Oregonians who don’t vote in the primaries are likely to show up in November to find the election already decided. In more than a third of Oregon House races in last month’s general election, and 40 percent of state Senate races, there was only one major party candidate, and only a handful of November legislative races could be called actually competitive.

Not having a party shouldn’t mean you don’t have a voice.

“Growing up on the East Coast, political parties had a lot of meaning,” recalls Hoyle. “Many people here don’t feel like political parties represent them.”
That’s true, she thinks, even for some Oregonians who regularly vote for their parties in November. For example, Hoyle suggests, pro-choice Republicans and pro-life Democrats may support their parties but be reluctant to identify with them.

And surveys show us that younger Oregonians – even the minority who actually vote – are reluctant to register as party members. As voting increasing becomes an elderly activity, like blood pressure tests or watching network news, we should be prepared to avoid discouraging the younger vote even further.
Oregonians may have less and less interested in labelling themselves Democrats or Republicans. But we shouldn’t let the entire system go down with the partisanship.

“We need in some fashion to address the non-affiliated voters and see how they can get involved in politics,” argued Greg Leo in October.

“The system needs to evolve.”

Because it seems the voters already have.

NOTE: This column appeares in The Oregonian, 12/17/14.