Friday, October 24, 2008

Ballot Measure 65

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.


  1. You've got to be kidding. This is an absurd argument. First, it doesn't change it for all races. You STILL have to vote in a primary for president, so party registration DOES matter under Measure 65, in the race where you actually mentioned.

    Second, I'd gladly have our primaries paid for as well. I've been lobbying to do exactly that instead of M65. I've also been lobbying to to get Instant Runoff Voting that would eliminate the spoiler effect. OF COURSE I DON'T WANT TO BE THE SPOILER.

    I'm actually running to be the Secretary of State, and if I win, I will of course serve the office and use the office to great benefit. I'm not running just to play the spoiler. I do know that first past the post relegates me to that status now, and M65 doesn't change the spoiler argument at all, instead of top one, it's top two. There'd be fear two republicans would show up and no democrats if four lefties ran in the race. People still have to vote for the one they want to concentrate support behind. In states with top two, this is a common case (see my analysis of washington's results on

    It doesn't require a majority vote, either, so everybody loses, big time in many cases. Why do we take so much effort to precisely count the votes if the voting method isn't an accurate portrayal of the electorate's opinion of who should be elected?

    You say that you don't see anything wrong with the measure other than parties are weakened. Please read the talking points page on to see twenty or so reasons, most of them having nothing to do with weakening the right of party members to select their candidates rather than back room dealing and special interests that can lobby a state party to endorse the candidate the local jurisdiction may not really like, but have no way of telling for certain since most people will just look at that endorsement and vote that way. You really need big money to defeat endorsements.

    All that is just inviting big money into the process.

  2. Excellent post. My thoughts exactly. I have to say, I've had a very hard time figuring out exactly what Seth is talking about in these blog comments he's leaving all over the place.

    Having no hope of winning gives minor parties the ability to be as ideologically pure as they like. It seems like some of them have become pretty attached to that. Like you, I'd rather see a party like the Pacific Greens actually engaging in the political process, instead of just grabbing a headline here or there.

    But maybe they just don't want to become relevant.

  3. Measure 65 will destroy most of Oregon's minor political parties, reduce voter choices, confuse the ballots, reward dirty politicking, and fail to achieve the stated purpose of its sponsors: to elect more moderate candidates to partisan offices.

    Measure 65 Destroys Most Minor Parties

    Today, Oregon's six minor parties can provide good alternatives to Democratic and Republican candidates in the general election. But Measure 65, the "top two primary" on the November ballot, effectively abolishes the Pacific Green, Constitution, Working Families, and Peace parties by removing their legal basis (getting 1% of the vote in the previous statewide general election). Under Measure 65, these 4 minor parties will cease to exist as of November 2010. Each can continue to exist after that only if it has increased its registered membership to about 10,500 ( ½ of 1% of all Oregon registered voters). The Constitution and Working families would need to increase their memberships by a factor of 4 or 5. The Peace Party would need to increase by a factor of 100. The Pacific Green Party would need a 25% expansion of membership.

    Measure 65 is intended by its sponsors to remove all minor-party and citizen-sponsored candidates from the general election ballot, including those supported by tens of thousands of voter signatures.

    Remaining Parties Subject to Identify Theft

    Under Measure 65, any resident can register as, say, a Democrat (up to the 70th day before the primary election) and immediately file as a candidate, with "Registered: Democratic" next to his name on the ballot. That person might be a Nazi, a Communist, a convicted child molester, you name it. Any political party can have its identity stolen in this way by complete strangers who suddenly take the party's name on the primary ballot.

    Measure 65 will thus force minor parties to endorse candidates they don't agree with, just to oppose the strangers on the ballot suddenly displaying their party names. Minor parties currently don't field candidates for every partisan office, rarely nominating more than a few candidates for the 75 races for the Oregon Legislature, for example. To avoid having their party labels hijacked by strangers, each minor party will be forced to endorse major-party candidates in those races, even if they differ with the minor party on the issues. This will further erode the identity of each minor party, which is usually based on a coherent, but not “mainstream,” political philosophy.

    Each major or minor party will fight the resulting confusion by endorsing a candidate in each race, since Measure 65 also allows party endorsements to appear on the ballot. No party would want to endorse more than one candidate per race, as that would split the votes of the party faithful and harm its endorsed candidates' chances to finish in the "top two" and advance to the general election. If voters were to follow these party endorsements, Measure 65 will, in effect, replace the major-party primaries with backroom endorsement deals.

    The "Ringer" Primary

    Under Measure 65, primary elections could become a game of "ringers," with political consultants recruiting candidates just to split the votes of the other parties. Republican consultants could recruit people to register and file as "Democratic" candidates, splitting the Democratic vote. Democrats could recruit phony "Republicans." Both of them could recruit phony "Independents" and phony "Libertarians," further increasing the party identity theft.

    Expect a confusing ballot, with a dozen or more candidates for each major office who are "Registered" and/or "Endorsed" the surviving parties. In primary elections since 1979 in Louisiana, the only state where the Measure 65 system has operated for a full election cycle, there have been nine, nine, eight, 12, 16, 11, 17, and 12 candidates on the ballot for governor alone.

    Not Necessarily Advance Moderate Candidates

    Measure 65 will not necessarily achieve the stated goal of its supporters--to advance moderate candidates to the general election. In Louisiana, it has advanced extremists, as the moderate vote is split among several moderate candidates in the primary. Ku Klux Clan leader David Duke has twice advanced to the statewide Louisiana general election. Of the 16 candidates for Governor in 1995, the top two (with 26% and 19% of the vote in the primary) were the two considered most extreme by conventional political observers. The organization FairVote states:

    A Republican state legislator, Duke ran a strong second in the 1990 U.S. Senate election and gained a spot in the runoff election in the governor's race in 1991. In that 1991 runoff, he faced Edwin Edwards, a former governor with a history of suspected corruption. Indicating the polarized nature of the choice between Duke and Edwards, a popular bumper sticker in favor of Edwards was: "Vote the Crook: It's Important."

    In the 1995 governor's race, sixteen candidates ran in the opening round, including four major candidates who ultimately won at least 18% of the vote. The two most ideologically extreme major candidates were Mike Foster, a conservative Republican who earned Pat Buchanan's endorsement and inherited much of David Duke's constituency, and Cleo Fields. a leading liberal Democrat in the Congressional Black Caucus. They advanced to the runoff election with a combined vote of only 45% of votes casts, with the more centrist vote split among other candidates. Foster ultimately was elected in the runoff election.

    A Louisiana-style nonpartisan primary easily can produce these kind of results because in a large field of candidates, the top two vote-getters can have relatively few votes. In a multi-candidate field, this rule tends to favor non-moderate candidates with the strongest core support that can be narrow rather than broad.

    Former Governor Edwards is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence for corruption.

    For more reading on this subject, see:

  4. Jeez, Dan, you've cut and pasted the same propaganda on every web site you can find. Instead, why don't you confront the arguments that are being made by individuals on this and other blogs?