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Third Parties Divided Over Top Two Primary Initiative

Saturday, September 06, 2014


Oregon’s third parties are divided on whether a proposed measure to change the state’s primary election system would make it easier or harder for their candidates to get into office. 

Oregonians will decide in November on the so-called top-two primary initiative. Primaries are normally closed to all but party voters, who then select which candidate will run in the general election. In recent years, critics have said primaries tend to only draw extremist voters, who then elect polarizing candidates .

The proposed measure would create a new general election and runoff system. Instead of a party primary, all voters would vote on any candidate in the field. The top two candidates from that election would then go to a runoff.

Backers say the system would result in the election of more moderate politicians.

Opponents say it could limit choice and lead to one-party dominance in government.

The third parties are split on how the measure would impact their role in Oregon politics. 

“I think this is one of the dumbest and most dangerous reforms that exists,” said Blair Bobier, spokesman for the Pacific Green Party.

The Green, Progressive and Libertarian parties all fear the proposed new system would shut third parties out.

Third-party candidates can get on the General Election ballot now, as long as they qualify as an official minor party. To do that, all a party has to do is gather signatures totaling 1.5 percent of the total votes cast in the last gubernatorial election. 

Dan Meek

Progressive Party leader Dan Meek is not a fan of the top two primary initiative.

“Top Two [election system] eliminates, by law, the ability of anyone to get on the ballot by petitioning,” Progressive Party spokesman Dan Meek said. 

Independent Party of Oregon (IPO) is the largest minor party in the state, with 100,000 members. That group is split on the measure and won’t take an official stand. 

But IPO secretary Sal Parelta said some third-party candidates will stand a better chance of getting elected with a primary that allows voters to vote on candidates regardless of their party affiliation. 

“I think it actually creates more opportunities for a party like ours to compete,” Parelta said.

The top-two system, however, has picked up a few third-party endorsements.

The Oregon Working Family Party in July endorsed the initiative. The party's state directior, Steve Hughes, said the majority of Oregon voters under 40 years old do not identify with the Republican or Democratic parties and cannot vote in the primary election.

"Those young people are shut out," he said. "That’s a problem that’s not getting any better." 

Unlike the open primary systems in Washington and California, Oregon will allow for third parties to endorse candidates outside their own party. Some see that as an advantage that could give them an edge with candidates who want that extra support. 

Steve Hughes

Working Families state director Steve Hughes says his party endorses the top-two primary.

“It allows minor parties to cross endorse," Hughes said. "It really gives us the opportunity as a minor party, and our members, to play a meaningful role in the election system and have an impactful say in who are the elected leaders of the state." 

Democrat James Kelly, the man behind the initiative, agrees. 

“That gives a lot of power to the minor parties to negotiate with the candidates for endorsements.” 

Kelly, who donated to the 2008 campaign for a similar initiative that failed by a wide margin, said his reasons are personal. He lives in a heavily Republican, Eastern Oregon district and believes an open primary would give him a bigger voice in the election. 

“The primaries settle the elections and I don’t even get a chance to vote,” he said. “People who get elected are so far to the right, people who are unwilling to compromise in the legislature.” 

Blair Bobier

Pacific Green Party spokesman Blair Bobier says the top-two primary would hurt third parties.

Bobier said the parties opposed to the top-two initiative plan to actively campaign against it. But they might not have the campaign cash to match initiative proponents, who have raised $608,800 as of Aug. 11. 

“I think from the point of view of the democratic process, we don’t want just moderates,” Bobier said. "We want everybody.”

Homepage Photo Credit: KCIvey via Compfight cc

[Disclosure: James Kelly is an investor in GoLocalPDX. His financial role in the company was not a factor in the reporting of this story.]


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