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October 5th, 2005 Max Muller | News Stories
 

Come One, Come All

Everything you need to know about opening party primaries to all Oregonians.

     
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A proposal to open Oregon's political primaries to voters from any party may sound pretty poli-sci wonky.

But if you need proof of the heat that seemingly dry idea can generate, check out the political blog Blue Oregon (www.blueoregon.com).

Last week, the proposed ballot initiative prompted more than 70 comments on the website, ping-ponging among political insiders trying to make sense of it.

And that got WW curious: What could possibly have the party elite so riled up even before petitioners begin gathering signatures to get the idea on the November 2006 general-election ballot?

How would an open primary work?

Under the current system, your party registration determines which ballot you receive. Republicans get a ballot listing Republican candidates; Democrats choose among Democrats. If you're an independent, you can't choose in partisan primaries. An open primary would eliminate the notion that each party can select one candidate to advance to the general election. In an open primary, all voters receive an identical ballot that lists all candidates of any party. Voters can vote for whomever they want, with the top two vote-getters advancing to the general election.

Why should I care?

Well, people who like the idea note that the state Legislature hasn't covered itself with glory of late. And they wonder whether a structural change in the election system might end partisan gridlock.

Who likes the proposal, and how would it end gridlock?

The Open Primary campaign is a pet project of former Oregon Secretary of State Phil Keisling. "I think the current system is broken," Keisling says. "The problem is an excess of partisanship that is amplified through a system that is of our own choosing and making."

The fact that it's the party faithful who turn out for primaries, he says, means general-election voters are often left choosing between what he calls representatives of "the passionate periphery."

Open-primary advocates say the current setup prohibits members of one party from adopting the good ideas of the other for fear of being labeled a turncoat. They say an open primary would produce broader voter participation, thus general-election candidates who better reflect voter sentiment.

Who hates the idea?

Most everyone agrees one loser would be the established political parties, which would relinquish control of the primary process.

Neel Pender, the state Democratic Party chair, wrote in postings on Blue Oregon that open primaries are" a gimmick," and he disputes the idea that it will generate more moderate general-election candidates. Critics say open primaries would only raise the already-growing price of campaigns because candidates would face the additional expense of getting their message out to all voters, not just party members, in the primary. They say that reaching out to everyone also would produce watered-down policy stances, designed to appeal to everyone but satisfying no one.

But wait, don't most ballot initiatives fail before they even make it to the ballot? Does this one stand a chance?

Of the 77 initiatives filed so far, experts expect fewer than a dozen to make it to the ballot. But this one has early backing from prominent supporters like Keisling, and the campaign behind it has already raised nearly $100,000.

 
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