Proponents of opening the Oregon primary to unaffiliated voters are trying to qualify a constitutional amendment for the November ballot that would accomplish that. The effort is long, and it’s unfortunate that it’s even necessary, especially given the state’s evolving electorate.
Last month, for the first time, voters unaffiliated with a political party edged out registered Democrats as the state’s largest bloc. Unaffiliated voters have outnumbered Republicans for some time.
This means that Democratic and Republican candidates must compete for those voters as well as their own to win the general election. But unaffiliated voters have no say in the choice of the main parties’ candidates in the primary elections.
Although primary elections are held at taxpayers’ expense, political parties determine who can vote in them. Nothing would stop the Democratic and Republican parties from allowing independent voters to participate, but they refused to do so.
It’s understandable on one level. The Legislative Assembly and Congress have traditionally been controlled by one party or the other, and party officials are understandably reluctant to allow non-party members a say in who appears on the November ballot.
But limiting primary turnout to voters who make up a shrinking share of the electorate only serves to perpetuate the partisan divide that makes many voters feel like the government doesn’t represent them.
It is no small irony that the Democrats are the party most responsible for the growth in the number of independent voters. A 2015 law passed with strong Democratic support automatically registers people who obtain or renew their driver’s license as unaffiliated voters. New subscribers receive a postcard by post allowing them to choose a party at the place of their choice. But people who weren’t originally signed up aren’t usually inclined to be strongly partisan.
The rationale for this law was to increase voter turnout. And yet, the one step that would do the most to get there – the opening of the primaries – receives no support from either major party.
The proposed constitutional amendment would simply state that publicly funded elections for state and federal office would be open to all qualified candidates and voters, regardless of party affiliation or not. This would not apply to presidential primaries or county commissioner races.
The details would be left to the legislature. In some states, unaffiliated voters can request a Democratic or Republican ballot, but must choose one or the other. California and Washington have the first two primaries. Alaska has adopted a ranked choice system.
Supporters of the amendment need to collect 150,000 signatures by July 8 to qualify for the November ballot, but they have little money to pay petition collectors.
Meanwhile, unaffiliated voters determined to have a say in the May primary can change their registration by April 26, but must choose one party or the other. They can change back after the primary if they wish.
Few voters are dedicated enough to bother. It would be preferable if they were allowed to participate, but that would depend on either a popular vote or a reversal by party officials.