Minor Parties OK With 2nd Class Status
With virtually every organized political party opposed to Measure 65, there must be something good about it.
Measure 65 on the Oregon ballot would change Oregon’s primary election process. Instead of having one primary ballot for Democrats and another for Republicans, there would be one ballot with all candidates for each office listed. In such a primary, all the voters could choose among all the candidates in all the races. The two candidates who receive the most votes then go on to a run-off in the November general election. This is just about the same method used in all the non-partisan races, such as for city council, district attorney or county commissioner.
This “top-two primary” is opposed by the insiders in both the Democratic and Republican parties. That’s understandable, since Measure 65 ends the exclusive primaries these parties hold every two years at taxpayer expense. They fear that party relevance and power would diminish and that’s probably true.
Aside from several political hacks losing their jobs, however, I see nothing wrong with the measure.
What is puzzling is that the minority parties—and specifically the Pacific Green Party—are staunchly against it. People who speak for these parties say they fear that it will spell the death knell of minor parties, because they will never get on the general election ballot.
I seriously doubt the demise of any of these minor parties would be much noticed. All of them combined amount to about five percent of all registered voters. The Libertarians have the most, with about two percent, followed by the Pacific Greens and the Constitution Party, Socialist Party and maybe a couple others. On the other hand, a fifth of all registered voters are not affiliated with any party—and these independents do not get a voice in the primaries for governor, secretary of state, state treasure, and all the state and federal legislative offices.
Currently Second Class
One would think that minority party people would hate being treated as second class citizens. While the state pays for the Democratic and Republican primaries, there are no primary ballots mailed out to Pacific Greens or Libertarians. They have to choose their candidates through some other method, such as a convention.
I’m thinking that the people who run these small parties would rather play the Ralph Nader role of spoiler than grow larger and actually have a chance at governing. When was the last time a minority party candidate won any kind of partisan election in Oregon? It hasn’t happened. The Libertarians have won at least four non-partisan municipal elections in Washing County—two on water boards and two on the Beaverton School Board. And Pacific Green member Xander Patterson was twice elected to the East Multnomah County Conservation Board.
So the only success minor parties have ever had in Oregon came in elections similar to the top-two primary concept. Elections where candidates of all parties were thrown together in the primary.
Many years ago, I registered to vote as a member of a minority party because its positions on issues aligned pretty closely with mine. But when a primary election loomed, I changed my registration back to Democrat so I could actually vote for candidates who were both good on the issues and could also win. According to state records for this year, about 25 percent of the Pacific Greens membership switched to the Democrats, presumably to vote for Obama or perhaps a progressive candidate like Steve Novick, who narrowly lost to Jeff Merkley in this year’s primary.
No Need to Be a Democrat
If there were a top-two primary, it’s possible I would change my registration to the Pacific Green Party, if it showed a bit more common sense on other issues than it is displaying on Measure 65. A lot of Democrats, especially in Portland, subscribe to political philosophies that are closer to the Greens than to mainstream Democrats. With a top-two primary system, they would have no reason to remain Democrats.
In fact, there is a chance some elected Democrats, such as state Sen. Vicki Walker of Eugene, or U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, would run as Pacific Greens or with some other progressive party, since their stature in their districts would guarantee them victory regardless of their party. It’s also possible that well-organized and articulate Pacific Greens running in inner Southeast and Northeast Portland legislative districts could win elections in these liberal/radical enclaves, whereas these races now are settled in the primary and frequently there is no contest in the general election. By the same token, Libertarians could challenge conventional Republicans in the suburbs and rural areas of Oregon, where one rarely sees a Democratic candidate.
Take the primary race in House District 42, where I live. Jules Kopel-Bailey won a lively Democratic primary with 40 percent of the vote over three other worthy opponents. He has no opponent in the general election, so he gets into the legislature without winning a majority in his only contested race. In a top-two primary system, he would have had to face the Democratic runner-up in the general election.
It wouldn't be farfetched to see a viable Pacific Green candidate emerge in District 42, given its extremely liberal constituency (the district encompasses both Reed College and the Hawthorne District).
But maybe the PG's don't want that kind of power. Maybe they don't want to go down to the legislature and actually grapple with the state's problems and get their hands dirty making compromises with other legislators, which is an essential part of democracy. Maybe the are happy to sit on the outside and throw stones that at this point have all the impact of a smurf football.