OREGON'S ELECTORAL SYSTEM
Monday, March 20, 2006
Open primary? Not from this initiative
T he editors of this and other Oregon newspapers have published editorials that follow a similar pattern: First, there is outrage expressed about the 2005 Legislature's enactment of House Bill 2614. That's the new law that bans any voter registered as a member of a major party -- Republican or Democrat -- from signing a petition for any independent candidate for any partisan office in Oregon during the two-year election cycle if that voter casts a ballot of any sort in the primary election -- on any race or any ballot measure. Then readers are urged to channel this outrage into support for a current statewide ballot initiative that is being portrayed as creating an open primary.
First, none of the pundits now disgusted by HB2614 lifted a finger to defeat it. The only Oregonians testifying against the bill were me and Blair Bobier of the Pacific Green Party. Nor did any supporter of the so-called open primary offer even a single word against the bill.
But more importantly, outrage against HB2614 cannot logically lead to support for the open-primary initiative, which in fact would not create an open primary. Earlier versions of such laws offered a true open primary, under which anyone could file to run in a primary election and be identified on the ballot by the candidate's party membership, if any. But in 2005 that system, which had been adopted by initiative in Washington, was struck down in federal court because it violated the First Amendment rights of the political parties to choose their own candidates.
So organizers of Oregon's open-primary campaign added a new stipulation to their initiative -- section 10(3) -- that allows each party to adopt internal rules to determine which candidates, if any, get to be identified with the party's label on the primary ballot. This unique provision establishes a system entirely different from an open primary.
Assume for a moment that each major party starts out allowing any of its members who run in a primary election to list the party label next to their names. Let's suppose that results in 10 Democrats and three Republicans running for governor. The likely result? Two Republicans would advance to the general election because Democrats would split their votes 10 ways.
Understanding that, each major party would be compelled to limit the number of candidates allowed to use the party label in any race to perhaps two at most. Even then, if the two Republicans each receive one vote more than the two Democrats, the result would still be two Republicans in the general election.
Since the essential function of a political party is to elect its candidates, the unavoidable response of each major party will be to limit to one the number of candidates allowed to list the party label in each race on the primary ballot.
Effectively, this means no primary at all, because each major party will list only one candidate for each office. This will give voters no real choice because the experience of other states has shown that candidates without major-party labels can almost never finish in the top two.
The open-primary initiative would also ban all third-place candidates from the general election ballot, allowing only the top two candidates from the primary for each office. Thus, it offers major-party politicos the best of all worlds: no possibility of any third candidates in any general election and no bothersome primary election among major-party candidates because the party central committees will simply select which candidate gets the party label for each office in each primary.
So while the open-primary petition is portrayed as reducing the power of the major parties, its effect will be exactly the opposite. If that initiative gets on the November ballot this year, it will almost certainly be enacted, because it will not be opposed by the major parties. Why should they oppose a measure that will grant them such enormous new power?
Dan Meek, a member of the Pacific Green Party, is an attorney living in Southwest Portland.