This fall, Oregonians will vote by mail to decide whether Oregon will join its neighbors, California and Washington, and become the third west coast state to pass the top-two primary.
As expected, much of the state’s political establishment, including the Democratic Party of Oregon, the Republican Party of Oregon, Oregon Right to Life, and Our Oregon, which is primarily funded by the state’s two largest public employee unions, oppose the measure. (Note: three of those groups support the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United)
These groups oppose this measure because it will take primary elections out of the hands of the political parties and put them into the hands of all Oregon voters. Though political parties will still be able to endorse candidates, they will no longer be the gatekeepers of who appears on the November ballot.
Though political parties will still be able to endorse candidates, they will no longer be the gatekeepers of who appears on the November ballot.Sal Peralta
If you are like most Americans, then you probably see our political system as broken.
A recent poll by Gallup shows that 60 percent of Americans do not feel well-represented by either major party and favor the formation of a third “independent” party. Another Gallup poll places confidence in the Supreme Court at 30 percent, the presidency at 29 percent, and Congress at just 7 percent. Another pollster rated our Congress’ popularity below both zombies and the Ebola virus (though slightly ahead of Justin Bieber).
If our system is failing, then “why,” and what can we do about it?
Surely there are many factors to consider, but one of them is that our current method of nominating candidates tends to favor the most partisan candidates.
In Oregon, as a rule, 60-65 of the 75 legislative districts that are up for election every two years are not seriously contested by one of the two major parties. In those districts, the only vote that matters is the one that happens in the Democratic or Republican primary — so 75% of voters have literally no say in who will win in November.
This “detente” in the majority of districts allows our state’s political machines to concentrate all of their fire on the remaining handful of 10-15 “competitive” districts in November. Campaigns in these districts are among the most expensive in the country, and the funding is almost entirely determined by the state’s dominant political donors.
It’s a system that rewards partisanship, protects the insiders, and discourages statesmanship.
The top-two primary will change it in several important ways, including:
- It does not reward the most partisan candidate in primary elections.
- It allows candidates who have stronger local funding to compete on a more equal basis with the lobby and the state’s main political funders.
- It takes nominating power out of the hands of political parties and puts it into the hands of all the people. Political parties may still endorse candidates in both the primary and the general election, but they will no longer be the arbiters of whether or not a candidate appears on the November ballot.
Candidates will be endorsed by political parties, not nominated by them. This may open the door for candidates to caucus with political parties other than Democrats and Republicans.
In Oregon, it is not so difficult to imagine an Independent caucus or a Working Families caucus gaining members and a bigger voice in the legislature.
Could it be a first step to proportional representation? Probably not. But the current system is failing us. Maybe it’s time we change it.