If Phil Keisling had gotten his way two years ago, more than one in five registered voters wouldn't be denied a say in Oregon's May presidential primary.
But Keisling, Oregon's former secretary of state, didn't.
And that means an estimated 431,986 Oregonians —or 22 percent of registered voters—won't get to vote in a primary that this year actually may mean something, at least on the Democratic side between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
This year, Keisling is back for a third time with a signature-gathering effort to put an initiative on the November 2008 ballot that would open Oregon's "closed primaries" by letting independent voters into the process. The current closed primary allows only voters registered in a party decide who will be their party's candidates in a November general election.
"Oregonians should have the freedom to vote for who they think will do the best job," says Keisling. "The open primary encourages people of wider views to run and allows those people to focus on more of the issues of importance rather than the second- and third-tier issues that dominate primary elections now."
Beyond independent voters having a say in presidential primaries, Keisling says the "open primary" fix in his Initiative Petition 109 for federal and state partisan positions also would broaden the spectrum of state contenders by letting all voters select from a ballot containing all candidates. The top two vote-getters for each office would go on to compete in the general election.
This third effort ("Come One, Come All," WW, Oct. 5, 2005) has its supporters but must overcome a history that includes the failure of a similar 2006 initiative petition to qualify for the ballot and a subsequent legislative effort that couldn't overcome bipartisan opposition.
Keisling's newest campaign has raised $26,850 so far, but has spent $23,417 with only one major donor to date—former Willamette Industries CEO and current Oregon Steel Mills chair William Swindells. He has contributed $5,000.
Keisling remains optimistic and points to the list of prominent backers at OneBallot.com, the Oregon Open Primary Campaign website. Among the endorsers from both parties: former Gov. John Kitzhaber, former Secretary of State Norma Paulus, state Sens. Avel Gordly and Ben Westlund, and Associated Oregon Industries.
More important, though, may be who's not on the list. That includes Oregon's Democratic and Republican parties as well as parties with smaller numbers.
"Open primary is a misnomer," says Marc Siegel, spokesman for the Democratic Party of Oregon. "It disqualifies participation more than it opens it."
Siegel and other Democratic Party leaders argue open primaries mean candidates spend more time raising the money needed to reach a wider audience and less time interacting with voters. Those with deep pockets will have even greater advantage over less well-funded candidates, they say.
Open primary opponents point to Louisiana, a state with a "top two" open primary since 1976, where one party—the Democrats—has dominated, often leaving general election voters the choice between two candidates from the same party. (Louisiana also has ranked in the bottom third among states for voter turnout over the past decade despite its "top two" open primary system.)
The Oregon Republican Party doesn't plan to support Keisling's proposal, either. "Anyone who wants to vote in a primary can do so by registering with a party," says Brianne Hyder, spokeswoman for the state GOP.
So-called third parties are even less enthusiastic about the proposal despite Keisling's belief that open primaries would help their members have a say. The Libertarians and the Greens, like their major-party counterparts, are concerned an open primary would leave them even more at the mercy of deep-pocketed candidates. The result: third-party candidates disappearing from the general election.
"I don't understand this thing at all," says Blair Bobier, a founder of the 12,000-member Pacific Green Party of Oregon. "This initiative is a solution in search of a problem."
IP 109 may have another problem —in the courts. Several states such as Washington have had their open primary rules overturned as infringements on the "right to associate" protected under the First Amendment.
Keisling says his initiative can prevail in the courts, since it avoids the "blanket" open primary Washington enacted that allowed voters of any party to participate in any party primary.
He also notes that public polls by Davis, Hibbitts and Midghall in Oregon as recently as 2006 show support of nearly 2-1. Of course, that support would be severely tested if the two major parties spent heavily to defeat an open primary proposal on the ballot.
"In a world in which everyone bemoans participation, this has enormous potential to engage far more voters and engage them earlier," says Keisling. "Having a majority of people sitting on the sidelines is not a system that is going to be strong, resilient and creative enough to address the problems we face."
The initiative effort requires 82,579 valid signatures by July 3 to qualify for the November ballot.
Twenty-three states now have some form of open primary, in most cases allowing independents to participate in party primaries. Large numbers of independents have turned out during this year's open primaries. In New Hampshire, 44 percent of those voting in the Democratic primary weren't party members. In South Carolina, that number reached 23 percent.