A proposal aimed at unlocking a 100-year Democratic-Republican duopoly in Oregon politics hangs in the balance as the 2007 Legislature wraps up this month.
Two minor parties—the Libertarian Party of Oregon and the Oregon Working Families Party—have a broad coalition of 15 Republican and Democratic lawmakers behind a bill that would restore something called "fusion voting" (see "Party On," WW, July 26, 2006).
Under fusion, third parties gain importance because they can use their ballot line to cross-endorse candidates. In other words, one candidate might be nominated by both the Democratic and Working Families parties; another might have Republican and Libertarian endorsement.
Voters would choose a candidate on the party line that best reflects their political preferences, sending a clearer signal to winning candidates about what positions got them in office. It's a system that Oregon had until the two major parties combined to eliminate it 100 years ago.
"This would expand democracy and make it so it's not a game between a Democrat and Republican beauty queen," says Oregon Working Families Party co-chair Barbara Dudley.
"Everybody wins," says Libertarian Party executive director Richard Burke, "because parties, candidates and voters have more choices."
But House Bill 3040, the "fusion bill," is now in the Capitol bottleneck of the Joint Ways and Means Committee, which must get big budget items out of the way before getting to policy issues like fusion. And they've only got about three weeks left until the session is scheduled to end June 29.
Among the lawmakers supporting HB 3040 are progressives such as Rep. Chip Shields (D-Portland) and conservatives such as Sen. Gary George (R-McMinnville). Dudley thinks fusion backers have the votes to pass the bill if Ways and Means co-chairs Sen. Kurt Schrader (D-Canby) and Rep. Mary Nolan (D-Portland) let it out onto the House and Senate floors.
The bill, however, is not high on Nolan's priority list.
"I'm not even sure this would be the most important improvement to the election system we could make," says Nolan, mentioning improving validity in ballot counting as another worthy election reform.
The Libertarian and Working Families parties hired ex-teachers union lobbyist Kristen Leonard to push the bill. And with ex-Working Families co-chair Tim Nesbitt one of Gov. Ted Kulongoski's top advisers, odds are good the governor would sign it.
The bill has no open opponents, but hit trouble when county elections clerks told the House Elections Committee that it would cost money and create more work. Their unsubstantiated guess that fusion might cost over $1 million—for voter education and a software patch—is what sent the bill to Ways and Means.
Fusion backers counter that it doesn't cost much in New York or the six other states that have fusion.
Whether legislative leaders back fusion may depend on their guess about which major party will benefit more. The Working Families Party is a new union-backed wager that blue-collar rebellion against D's can be channeled into a separate party line without helping elect R's. And Libertarians, who've run their own candidates before, might get more pull with Republicans if they had a carrot and a stick.
"It'll be good for those who lean toward a third party," Shields says, "because they can show where they stand on issues without having their vote not count as much."
If all else fails, fusion backers have discussed a ballot initiative for 2008.