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Third Parties Oppose Nonpartisan Primaries; Defend System They Never Win In

by Shawn M. Griffiths, published

On Monday, October 27, IVN published an article about Measure 90, which will appear on Oregon's statewide general election ballot on November 4. The measure would completely reform the electoral system in the state by implementing a nonpartisan, top-two open primary similar to the primary systems in California and Washington state.

Though the system is similar, there are some important distinctions. To read more about the measure and the details of the measure, click here

As one might expect, major party operatives are largely opposed to nonpartisan election reform of any kind. In nonpartisan primaries, like top-two, all candidates and voters, regardless of party affiliation, participate on a single ballot instead of individual ballots for each party. The purpose is not to select candidates for a political party, but to select candidates for the general election -- shifting power away from private organizations to where it belongs... the voter.

The U.S. Constitution protects the right all voters have to equal and meaningful access to the election process. Unfortunately, most electoral systems nationwide do not give all voters an equal voice -- a vote that really matters.

In states with closed partisan primaries, independent voters are told that if they want full access to the voting process and an equal voice, they must join a political party -- a private organization. However, as this requires them to sacrifice their First Amendment right to non-association, this is not really giving these voters an equal or meaningful voice in elections.

Even in open partisan primaries, voters are told that they can vote in the primary, but they must choose a party ballot and can only vote for candidates of that party. The purpose is to select the candidates of a political party -- a private purpose, even though these elections are paid for with public funds and publicly administered.

Partisan primaries either don't offer voters much of a choice, or no choice at all.

Then, in the general election, the public votes on candidates selected by less than 10 percent of the registered voting population. And after 200 years of partisan gerrymandering, electoral districts are shaped to favor either the Republican or the Democratic Party, meaning only voters in the majority party actually pick who wins the election -- rendering the votes of those outside the majority party meaningless.

Both major parties benefit from traditional electoral systems and so it is no surprise that they reject election reform that diminishes their power while increasing the voting power of all voters.

However, in Oregon, some of the most vocal opponents are not leaders of the Democratic or Republican parties, but minor parties. Minor parties argue that under the top-two primary system proposed in Measure 90, third parties would be completely shut out of the process and would struggle to retain party status. But would they really struggle more than under the current system?

"Measure 90 adds an additional qualification path for minor parties to deal with exactly the problem you outlined: it allows a minor party to maintain its status if any candidate registered with that party polls > 1% in a statewide primary election, which actually makes it much easier for a minor party to keep its status than under the system today," said Mark Frohnmayer in a comment on the IVN article.

“[Measure 90] is not ‘open’ in any sense of the term,” said Seth Woolley, an election activist for the Pacific Green Party. “It essentially banishes the progressive reform of party primaries that moved party nominations from back rooms to plenary public vote of all members. Party primaries are thus the most open way of parties selecting their nominees. Who can participate in a party primary should be up to each party.”

Nothing in Measure 90 says parties cannot nominate their own candidates. Parties can conduct their own nomination process to select a candidate for primary elections, which would help consolidate voter support -- however much support there is.

Third parties argue that by only allowing two candidates in the general election, the stage in the electoral process where the most voters participate, it limits choice. However, how much choice does the current system offer by barring a quarter of the voting population from participating in all integral stages of the voting process? How much choice does the current system offer when nearly all congressional races are decided by members of the majority party in that district?

Third parties don't fare very well under traditional partisan systems. According to, only two

third-party candidates have served in the U.S. House since 1949 (not counting the 3 independent candidates who have served since then). The last third-party candidate served in the 86th Congress from 1959 to 1961.

Consider this for a moment. There are 435 seats in the U.S. House and there have been a little over 30 elections since 1948 (not counting special elections). It has been half a century since a third-party candidate was elected to the House. The number of non-major party lawmakers who have served in the lower chamber of Congress is nowhere close to being statistically relevant.

In fact, what third party leaders fail to see (or willingly ignore) is that they are being used by the major parties under the current system. The majority party in an electoral district counts on third-party candidates to diminish the voting power of voters outside the party. The more candidates that are on the ballot, the less support candidates in the majority party need to win. If a voter is not a member of the majority party, their vote is essentially meaningless.

It is the illusion of choice that third-party leaders try to sell voters when opposing nonpartisan election reform. They are more concerned about getting their party's name on the general election ballot than making sure their members have an equal and meaningful voice in elections. If anything, third-party voters in Oregon should be just as upset as independent voters about the closed partisan primary system in the state -- a system that puts private interests ahead of voters.

The question Oregon voters need to reflect on is, what is the purpose of elections? Is the purpose of elections to give every voter an equal and meaningful voice -- to enhance an individual's voting power and thereby give them real choice? Or, is it to protect the claim by private organizations that they have some inherent, exclusive right to elections -- a right found nowhere in the U.S. Constitution?

Photo Source: No on Measure 90

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