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Rise in nonaffiliated voters spurs push to open Oregon primaries

Nonaffiliated voters are the largest bloc in the state, but they can’t pick candidates in most primary elections

BY: JULIA SHUMWAY- APRIL 5, 2022 6:15 AM Full Article available here Oregon voters who aren’t registered with any political party reached a significant milestone in March: They now outnumber Democrats.

Nonaffiliated voters have long been the second largest bloc in the state, behind Democrats and ahead of Republicans. Their continued growth, due in part to a 2015 law that automatically registered people getting or renewing driver’s licenses as nonaffiliated voters, could give them more political power.

But they don’t get a say in picking candidates in most primary elections.

Nonaffiliated voters have until April 26 to change their party registration and become eligible to vote in the Democratic or Republican primary. They can switch their registration back after that.

News that nonaffiliated voters surpassed registered Democrats brought more attention to a pending attempt to change the Oregon Constitution to allow all voters to participate in state-funded primary elections. Ed Doyle, president of Oregon Open Primaries and the chief petitioner for the proposed constitutional amendment, said he’s been a registered voter with both major parties at different points in his life and was always frustrated by how primaries limited his choices.

“I’ve always kind of been bothered by the fact that I was limited,” he said. “I’ve always voted for the person, not the party, and very frequently I was limited on who I could choose.”

Doyle and other petitioners gathered more than 1,000 signatures from Oregon voters, the first step in getting a proposed amendment on the ballot. They’re now reviewing a draft ballot title from the Oregon Justice Department, and once that ballot title is complete, they must collect nearly 150,000 signatures from Oregon voters by July 8 for the measure to appear on the November ballot.

It’s a difficult task for a group that now has about $6,500 in a campaign bank account and will need to pay petition circulators.

“It’s really an uphill battle for us to actually get the signatures in order to get on the ballot,” Doyle said. “It will really depend on funding as we go forward.”

The proposed initiative is simple – just a two-sentence addition to a section of the Constitution. It would require that all voters be able to vote in a state-funded primary for any candidate for Congress, U.S. Senate, the Oregon Legislature and statewide elected offices like governor, regardless of political party.

It wouldn’t apply to presidential primaries or to partisan primaries for local races like county commission.

It also doesn’t prescribe how the state would hold open primary elections, just that all voters must be able to vote for all candidates. That could take the form of the top-two primaries held in Washington and California, or it could resemble a new Alaska election system that will be used for the first time in a special congressional election this summer.

“It may be top two,” he said. “It may be top four. It may be something completely different. Our initiative isn’t defining the solution. It’s opening the door to guarantee the rights for all voters and all candidates.”

Doyle said he anticipates opposition from Democrats and Republicans, who have opposed similar efforts over the past two decades. Oregon voters defeated ballot measures in both 2008 and 2014 that would have created a top-two primary system akin to California and Washington.

State Sen. Dallas Heard, a Roseburg Republican who until recently chaired the state GOP, proposed opening the Republican primary to nonaffiliated voters. Other party leaders rejected the idea.

Carla “K.C.” Hanson, chair of the Democratic Party of Oregon, said party leaders will decide whether to support or oppose the initiative if it moves forward, but they’ve historically opposed the idea of opening primaries to all voters.

“In the past, the Democratic Party has not viewed it as a viable option and neither have the people of Oregon,” she said. “Oregon voters have consistently voted it down every time it comes up, and they’re right.”

The rise in nonaffiliated voters, though, means both parties need to reach voters in the general election who haven’t chosen either party.


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