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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Two-fer Thursday

Today's two Oregon ballot measures in our whirlwind survey are the two having to do with future elections. One's a no-brainer, and the other is a no-way-er.

Measure 54 is a housekeeping measure. It would conform the voting eligibility requirements in school board elections with the rules for other elections. That's the effect of current law anyway, since some of the special rules technically on the books for school board elections are unconstitutional. Legend has it that the glitch in current law was discovered by the student Constitution Team at Grant High School in Portland, and their findings led to this cleanup measure. More power to the Grantsters! This measure deserves an affirmative vote.

Down the other end of the list, Measure 65 would radically change the political party system in the state. Rather than have the two major parties hold members-only primaries, with the winners joining small-party nominees in the subsequent general elections, this measure would mandate that only the candidates who get the two highest vote totals in the primary would be on the general election ballot. Some are calling this an "open primary" system, but it isn't really. In an open primary each party's nominee appears on the general election ballot, but everyone gets to vote in all the primary contests. This measure is more like turning every election in the state into a nonpartisan election; only the two biggest-name candidates will be on the general ballot, and you'll likely never see a minor-party candidate on the general ballot at all. For many offices, the general election will offer the voting public two candidates from the same party -- the way all local-office elections in Portland and Multnomah County are now, for example. (Then you wonder how we get Bernie Giusto and the Mean Girls.)

Why would we want to do this? Measure 65 is being pushed hard by former Secretary of State Phil Keisling, and he's got the backing of a diverse group that includes some of the Bus Kids, as well as some high-roller doctors and corporate hotshots such as John Kitzhaber and Moneybags Parsons from Standard Insurance.

To us, the best Voter's Pamphlet comment by opponents of the measure comes from former Governor Barbara Roberts, who calls it a solution in search of a problem. Besides, the major political parties already have too much power, and they're too cozy with businesses and labor unions. Measure 65 would kill off little parties and further marginalize everyday voters. I'd like to see Oregon try some new ideas to clean up politics and make state government more effective, but something this extreme needs a compelling case to be made for it, and I'm just not seeing it. And so I will be voting no.

Comments (16)

The story on the Grant Constitution team is true. I personally know one of the members of the team that discovered it...

And as the saying goes, the biggest source of problems is solutions. So on the mis-named "open primary" (actually the Cajun Primary, since it doesn't open primaries so much as destroy them, as occurred in Louisiana when they used it), we have a non-solution that will cause devastating problems all to solve --- what, exactly?

The Oregonian is totally in the tank for this, like most big businesses, because they don't like a system that gives voters any chance to have real choices.

With this dumb idea that will destroy minor parties and throw control of nominations to the least informed, least active people (the ones who can't bother to join a party), Kiesling is working on losing any credit he may have gained for pushing for vote by mail.

Measure 65 is one of those measures that is hard to think through - a solution in search of a problem is maybe the best way to summarize it. I'm not sure yet what I think of it, but I think there is one argument for it that seems plausible.

In the current system of basically party-safe legislative districts, there is fairly little chance of a candidate from the minority party getting elected. The result is that the real election happens in the primary where, in party-safe districts, the candidates who are more partisan tend to beat the ones who are more centrist or moderate. (Ok, that's a generalization, but bear with me.) The result is that we keep electing polairized partisans to the legislature, with a resulting grid-lock once they all get together.

What would measure 65 do? The primaries in close districts would still elect a Dem & a Rebub in the primary, as now happens, with no change in the general election. But what if two Dems or two Repubs get through to the general in a party-safe district? Now there will be one of the traditional, more partisan, candidates, and maybe a more centrist candidate that could be attractive to not only voters of the minority party, but also to some voters of the majority party. Now there's a chance to elect someone, still from the majority party, who is more centrist and not such a hard-core partisan.

I think measure 65 could revive old fashioned Oregon centrism. I think this could actually be a good thing. I just don't know how realistic it is.

The first thing they need to do is get rid of the current (unconstitutional) Oregon law that says that members of the big parties can't sign a petition to put an independent candidate on the ballot.

>>>>The first thing they need to do is get rid of the current (unconstitutional) Oregon law that says that members of the big parties can't sign a petition to put an independent candidate on the ballot.

That would be a good thing. It would spare us the hoops we had to go through for the Westlund run... But I'd think that, even if they could get on a general election ballot, 3rd party candidates would have a hard time getting elected. I think that the current two-party system leaves very long odds for any 3rd party candidate here in Oregon. The option to vote for them would be nice, but as often as not it seems to be more a vote against one's second choice than a vote for a possible winner.

If M65 passes, I do not understand why we would even need a primary at all. Wouldn't a most-votes rule in the general election save all the costs of running a primary?

Perhaps more importantly, if M65 passes, you can say good-bye to Portland's Republican party and good-bye to Eastern Oregon's Democratic party.

What are the differences between M65 and the current Washington state "Top Two" system?


"This measure is more like turning every election in the state into a nonpartisan election"

That sounds like a fantastically good idea to me, so I'm having some trouble seeing the downside. It's not impossible to see how minor parties could be any worse off under this measure than they are now, but... it is kinda hard.

I think Jack zeroes in on a couple of the major problems with this idea. It is a solution in search of a problem. It also involves some "bait and switch" tactics, in that they keep calling it an open primary, but it doesn't resemble "open primary" as that term is used anywhere else. I know they used that term on the street, and probably got a lot of signatures that way. They also write assertions, without evidence, about the efficacy of the scheme into the text of the measure, as if voting alone would make it true.

In its original meaning, "partisan" doesn't mean "affiliated with a party" but "taking sides." That doesn't go away. Neither does the fact that Congress is organized around party caucuses. After a crowded Primary, we could be denied the opportunity to choose the party of our representatives in Congress.

It's also a canard to say that non-affiliated voters are "disenfranchised" by being unable to help choose party nominees. Anybody can opt in or opt out of a party primary by checking a box on a registration form. Hardly the stuff of "We Shall Overcome."

The cost of running the voter contact equivalent of two general election campaigns in order to win must have the campaign consultants and mailing salesmen salivating. And there is no provision for direct election in the primary when a candidate draws a majority, as there is in non-partisan elections to local boards and councils.

There would be pressure to stay out of a primary if there were already two candidates from your party. Whatever you think about this scheme's "openness" for voters, it will be more closed for candidates.

The party nomination process starts with a self sorting process (registration) and then election of a nominee within the categories. Then we all choose based on some combination of the category (party) of the nominees and their personal attributes. When you bypass that process there are a number of likely scenarios in which the majority's first choice doesn't advance, and in which the majority's first choice of party doesn't advance. This measure really goes the opposite direction from instant runoff voting.

There's a lot to choose from, Sue, but I'll focus on this: "It's also a canard to say that non-affiliated voters are "disenfranchised" by being unable to help choose party nominees. Anybody can opt in or opt out of a party primary by checking a box on a registration form."

This is true as far as it goes. However, in current Oregon law by merely checking that box and returning the registration form to join a major party, I do invalidate any signature I have placed on an independent candidate's petition (or minor party's caucus roll) to join the election for any and all partisan offices. The only way to avoid this invalidation is to decline to return my primary election ballot; thus the disenfranchisement. A major-party voter can support an independent candidate's nomination, but to do so that voter must give up his primary ballot franchise, measures and nonpartisan races included. It's a hard choice between bad options.

The Legislature passed that law a couple years ago enabling this travesty, saying that they did it to protect the minor parties. In reality of course they actually acted to cement their parties' dominance.

I find the support for 65 of many centrists and the opposition of many further out on both wings to be a very interesting pattern. Under this measure, it seems to me that all primary candidates would have incentive to foster a broad appeal, instead of focusing on getting the support of their party's hardest core without regard to moderates. The influence of all manner of extremists would be reduced. This strikes me as a very, very positive development when it comes to enabling good governance.

I am not certain as yet, but this looks like something I want to vote for.

...and you'll likely never see a minor-party candidate on the general ballot at all.

Well, actually, that's not true, Jack. (It was true under the 2006 edition of the measure, but not the 2008 edition.)

Under Measure 65, a minor party could endorse a candidate in the primary election. If that candidate loses, they can endorse another candidate in the general election.

So, for a real-life example, in the current U.S. Senate race, Jeff Merkley would be listed as being endorsed by three parties - the Democratic Party, the Independent Party of Oregon, and the Working Families Party.

And that could be true EVEN IF those parties had chosen to endorse other candidates in the primary.

Seems to me that that provision actually gives great power to the minor parties in general elections.

And for the record, I am undecided on Measure 65 and not working for either campaign in this election.

Alan, then why not work to repeal the law you object to instead of obliterating the nomination process entirely without evidence that doing so makes things better?

"The system is broken" is hyperbole. We have had some outcomes that were not desirable, but where is the evidence that the electoral mechanics are at fault?

Blaming extreme "partisanship" (or lack of statesmanship) on all parties or on the structure is a smokescreen to obscure the responsibility that one party has for rancor and gridlock in Congress and the Legislature when it recently held majorities. The fix for that is to vote them out.

that provision actually gives great power to the minor parties in general elections.

Really? They can endorse one of the two Democrats on the general election ballot, but they lose the right that they currently have to run anyone against them. That's power? I don't get it, and from what I gather, neither do they.

"Alan, then why not work to repeal the law you object to instead of obliterating the nomination process entirely without evidence that doing so makes things better"

Well, Sue, it's been three years and all the people who think that law is a travesty haven't got anywhere. The major parties control the legislature, and they both have zero interest in fixing the problem they made to protect their dominance. (Mind you, the county election supervisors were and are pretty much all against the existing law, but to no avail.) So instead the only path to a fix is an initiative, and this is the one that's on the ballot.

There is a great deal of reason to think electoral mechanics are partly at fault. The cause and effect is hard to sort out, but as a chart here shows, in 2004 Oregon was the most deeply divided state in the nation. The current system rewards candidates who can win single-party primary elections; adherence to the party line is the path to winning primaries. Step a little out of line, from either party, and you get crushed in the primary. This results in highly polarized general election candidates.

Let's work an example, the Portland neighborhood of Foo. This fictional but plausible area is a very deeply liberal district, so liberal that a Green party candidate - Alice -has a plausible (though unlikely) shot at victory in the general election with about 10% support. The Republicans of course find someone to run - Bob - but have no expectation of or realistic chance for a win as they only have 25% conservatives in the district. Two Democrats run, Charlie close to the party line and Diane with a few positions more or less liberal than the party line; they share the 45% Democrat support inherent to the district. 20% of the district are independents. (Who haven't get a candidate on the ballot because the odious 2005 law invalidated too many signatures.)

In the current system, the Democratic primary between Charlie and Diane will probably go to Charlie, because he's the one with better support from the party leadership*. Alice, Bob, and Charlie show up on the general election ballot. Lots of independent and liberal Diane voters are interested in Alice, but many of them decide to vote defensively to keep Bob from winning the general by allowing Alice to split too much of the liberal vote. Final totals are 25% Alice, 35% Bob, 40% Charlie. Charlie the party loyalist wins office without a majority of his district's support.

In the new system, all four go in the primary election. Now, every liberal voter knows that no matter who they vote for, they'll have one candidate in the general election to defeat Bob; there is no chance at all Bob can win the office outright in the primary. This removes all incentive to vote defensively. Bob picks up his base support plus some independents for 30%, but the big surprise is that Charlie garners only 20% of the vote, pulling only the loyal Democratic base. Alice pulls in 22%, and Diane pulls in 28%. Turns out Diane had broad appeal! In the general election, Diane goes on to crush Bob 65%-35%.

In neither scenario does Alice the Green win office, that's true. But her chances are actually improved by this primary, not decreased. And come next election, she can show that the Green party is actually able to garner significant support, and maybe grab second place and a shot in the general.

When offered a choice free of defensive voting, the outcome can be different. The winner in the current scenario actually came in last in the proposed rule. People can vote for who they want in the new primary, rather than voting against who they don't want in the existing general.

To me this looks like a good step. The districts will not be any less divided than they are now, but the viable candidates** in the general election will become more diverse in outlook, even if they are both of one party. Moderate candidates will once again have a chance to win general elections.

[*: See also Merkeley-v-Novick in 2008]
[**: Bob was never viable in that district. Never. He's a placeholder in the general under current rules, there for form's sake. The election is truly decided in the closed Democratic primary, by 45% of the district.]

I like the concept behind 65, and will probably vote for it. It is far from perfect. In the current system the public pays to conduct nominations (primaries) for two private organizations (the major parties) while other private organizations (the minor parties) do not get a similar public accommodation. This would level that playing field somewhat.

A better way to conduct elections would be instant runoff voting, which better reflects the expressed desire of the people. IRV in multi-seat districts would allow a governing body to better reflect the public. This could also give minor party candidates an actual shot at a few seats.

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