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Thursday, June 19, 2008

"Open primary"? Not really

We blogged yesterday about Greg Macpherson's solicitation of our support for what he calls an "open primary." But as an alert reader points out, that isn't what he ballot measure that Macpherson is touting creates. It's more like a runoff system in a nonpartisan election. We'll let the reader explain:

The use of the term "Open Primary" is nothing but bait and switch. This scheme in no way resembles Open Primaries as the term is used or understood anywhere. In fact, the term "open primary" was turned down for inclusion in the ballot title, because it doesn't describe what is proposed. It prohibits parties, any parties, from nominating candidates to the General Election. It doesn't "open" the Primary in the way that term is understood in other states. In other words, instead of allowing voters who are not members of a party to participate in that party's nominating process, it eliminates the nominating process altogether and replaces it with a top two runoff. Plus, It uses invented, intuitively meaningless terminology for a core concept, which offices it will affect, "voter choice offices." Huh? And races for non-partisan positions it would not affect are not "voter choice offices"? This is just classic obfuscation.

The measure asserts without evidence that: "A primary election process that advances the two candidates receiving the most votes to the general election ballot, and that allows every qualified voter to vote on which candidate to advance, helps to ensure the election of officials supported by a majority of the electorate, thereby promoting citizen confidence in their government."

In fact there is plenty of evidence that this measure would lead to the opposite result. In a crowded primary election, we would have no way of knowing who was supported by a majority of the electorate. The pluralities received by the top two would be dependent on the preferences distributed among the other candidates. In fact, we would not necessarily elect a candidate from the party supported by a majority of the voters. In the not far-fetched scenario in which four Democratic candidates split 60% of the vote, two Republican candidates could go to the general election, denying a majority an opportunity to elect a candidate or party they mostly agree with. And the party elected is significant, since both the Congress and the Legislature are organized around parties, and nothing about this measure changes either one.

It violates the principal of independence from irrelevant alternatives as described in studies of electoral systems. (Look up Arrow's Theorem.) A group's preference for A over B can be radically subverted if a subset prefers C over A. In other words, in an election in which a majority would prefer A over B or C in a two-way race, in a three-way it's quite possible that B and C would advance to the runoff election, and that A would appear to come in third.

Or would we have to rely on backroom deals to limit the number of candidates to prevent that kind of paradoxical result? Of course the pressure would be intense to stay out of the race if your entry would cause your party's vote to be split more than the other's. In that sense, from both the candidate's standpoint and the standpoint of voter choice, this system would be more closed than the one we have now.

Questions have been raised as to whether it bars alternative means of reaching the general election ballot. Some think not, some think only to the major parties, and so far the Oregon Supreme Court says yes, the only way to the general election ballot would be via the top two primary. The text of the measure can be cited to support any of those positions. Ah, the litigation opportunities abound.

It uses the term "open primary," and yet proposes a system that is radically different from how that term is used in law and political science. This makes the initiative process a bait and switch scheme. And even though the Oregon Supreme Court declined the petitioner's request to put that term into the ballot title, they use it on the street as part of the standard signature gathering script. It must have had good positives in a poll or focus group, as a term disembodied from the measure it is supposed to describe.

Sounds fishy to us.

Comments (9)

There's been some heated debate over at BlueOregon about this measure. Two former secretaries of state and two former governors support it, but the two main party organizations don't like it. I agree with you that "nonpartisan election" is a much more accurate description than "open primary". A similar system has will soon be implemented in Washington, where it's called the "Top 2 Primary". Perhaps we will see if some of your correspondent's fears are justified.

It's a lot closer to the "jungle primary" system in Louisiana that produced the famous run-off between Klan leader David Duke and the crook Edwin Edwards (who is currently serving time in federal prison on a 10 year corruption conviction).

In that primary (1991) the Republicans fielded three strong candidates and the Dem's fielded one (there were a half dozen weak D candidates but none could even garner 1% of the vote). The three Republicans split about 64% of the vote and the only strong D took in about 34%.

Duke narrowly beat out the third place finisher in the primary leading some to conclude that Duke's win was made possible by white (racist) Democrat voters in the primary (Duke had just run or US President as a Democrat in 1988).

Who knows what it might produce in Oregon?

Neil Goldschmidt v Lon Mabon?

Probably not, but Keisling's proposal would be a giant change over the status quo. It would seriously disrupt current power structure by weakening the parties ability to influence who nominated under their label (maybe good). On the other hand it would likely increase the retention of incumbents because name recognition will be even more valuable (definitely not good).

From a purely adolescent perspective, I do think it will make politics more fun to watch because it will invite more chaos and upsets.

Using a texas hold-em metaphor it will be like changing the primary system from a pot-limit cash game into a no-limit tournament (where the number of entrants engaging in unconventional/irrational impulse play undermine the strategies of the skilled players in the tournament).

I like this proposal, whatever you call it, for three reasons:

1. It eliminates taxpayer subsidization of the two major parties. Why should independents and third party voters pay for these primaries?

2. It will give all citizens a chance to vote for all candidates. This spring, we had a hot three-way race in the Democratic primary--and zilch in the Republican primary. Kate Brown won the Democratic primary with less than a majority. Yet without any Republican opposition, she is assured of being the next secretary of state. Under the Keisling proposal, she wouldn't have this kind of cakewalk--assuming she would be in the top two in an open primary. Most likely, she would have had to face Vicki Walker or Rick Metzger in the general election. This kind of competition makes for better democracy.

3. It should get rid of some of the whackos--particularly the right wing variety--that monkey wrenched the state legislature for most of the past 20 years. People like Kim Thatcher, Marilyn Shannon and Larry George. These people won their primary elections by appealing to the Christian conservative base and then win against a weak Democrat in the general, even though a more moderate Republican would represent the district's voters more accurately.

In Portland, almost all the legislative districts are solidly Democratic and whoever wins the primary wins it all. This basically gives politicians a free ride and they become less accountable to their constituents.

Essentially, the proposal would tend to favor centrist candidates and eliminate radicals. It also will weaken the influence of political parties to some extent.

I've followed the debate on BlueOregon and it's obvious that the people most vociferous opponents are--you guessed it--people employed by the major political parties, or who otherwise have a big stake in seeing that the parties retain their supremacy.

Ah, "political science" theorems: A over B and C over B and D over A or D or . . . such partisanship. Is there science in politics? I'm all for a primary in which I, a nonaffiliated, can vote. Call it what you may!

As I've said elsewhere, all this would do is ensure that the parties select their candidate in a process that is a lot less open with a much smaller voting population. It may be some sort of caucus (which of course wouldn't come close to the 70%+ turnout among Dems that we had in the primary).

So all you do is change to a process where a much smaller portion of the population (the activists, primarily) choose the nominees and the "election" is just a formality.

There are plenty of things that I pay for with my tax dollars that I don't use. That's the way our society works. However, you have the ability to make a quick change in your voter registration, vote in the primary, and then change back.

Not only that, but we would still have primaries. The presidential race does not fall under this, so we'd still have that process every 4 years. Not to mention non-partisan state races like Labor Commissioner and State Superintendent of Public Ed - both happen in the non-presidential years. There are plenty of municipal and other local races on the ballot as well. It makes for a longer ballot, but doesn't change the fact that the ballots would need to be mailed out even if the partisan primary process was completely handled in caucuses.

That "alert reader" tale reads an awful lot like an entrenched party insider grasping at straws to preserve a job and undue influence over elections. I'd love a citation to an actual occurrence of the "not far-fetched scenario" where four Democratic candidates split 60% of the vote and two Republican candidates earned the remainder. Should be pretty easy to add up total votes from past primaries to prove the far-fetched assertion.

How can it be a bad thing to allow the growing independent base in Oregon a vote?

Funny, if we want the cajun primary so much we ought to get rid of our "sore loser" law -- apparently Cyreena Boston won the GOP primary because of write-in votes but is barred from appearing on the November ballot because of "sore loser" -- yet that's exactly what the cajun primary (top two) does -- sets up a rematch between the winner and the next person, no matter how far apart they are. (Interesting, Kroger also won the GOP primary, but is not barred from appearing on the ballot on both lines because he won the D primary; in other words, we don't have a problem with fusion -- endorsement by multiple parties -- we have a long-standing policy against the cajun primary.)

Who's denying the independents in Oregon a vote? Nobody. This is simply empty spin.

You can't vote in a homeowner's association or a Rotary club you don't belong to, why do you think you should be able to vote to select candidates in a political party you don't belong to -- especially with a cockamamie system that essentially destroys parties by forcing them into a joint primary and allows non-party members to decide which (if any) of the party members can carry the party banner forward.

"Who's denying the independents in Oregon a vote? Nobody. This is simply empty spin."


I agree completely, George!!

The NAVs and Indies can vote in any primary they want to, be it Dem or Rep. All they have to do is become a Dem or Rep and then vote there!

Kinda like gays and marriage. They already have the right to marry. Just as long as their marriage has one man and one woman. Also simple spin!

NG: never said they could vote in any _primary_ they want to.

If you reread my post, my intent was to say that only members of a party should expect to be able to help select the party standard bearers, just like only members of the Rotary should expect to be able to vote in Rotary elections. It ain't a public matter until you're filling a public office.

If you don't agree with that, fine, say so.

(You can argue that we therefore shouldn't be paying for parties to run their nomination process and there we would agree.)

Why don't you try taking on a real issue, which is the weird way that the cajun primary does exactly what the current law forbids, creates a sore-loser primary. If two PDX Dems finish 1 and 2 in the cajun primary, they go onto the general -- exactly what our current law forbids.

If you want a system that gives independents a fair shake at election time, advocate for instant runoff voting, so there's no more need to worry about spoilers and nonsense like that. Then, whether you like the major party candidates or not, you can vote for whomever you want without having to worry that your vote will backfire on you.


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