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Independent Party earns major status

The Independent Party of Oregon has earned major party status, making it the third party in the state to run its own primary. Candidates will run against democrats and republicans in general elections.When voters fill out their ballots this fall, they’ll likely see more than just Republicans and Democrats running for statewide offices.

The Independent Party of Oregon officially achieved major party status this week, meaning the state of Oregon will finance and administer its 2016 Primary Election. The party's winning candidates will automatically appear on General Election ballots, just like candidates from the Democratic and Republican parties.

The Secretary of State's Office announced on Monday that the Independent Party of Oregon had enough registered voters to qualify for major party status. State election law grants any party major status if it registers 5 percent of the voters in the previous general election.

It’s a new chapter in Oregon election politics, which has seen only two parties for decades.

The Independent Party needed 108,739 registered voters to become a major party. According to Secretary of State Jeanne P. Atkins, the party had 109,363 registered voters by the state’s Sunday deadline.

"I'm thrilled," Independent Party Secretary Sal Peralta said Monday. "This is the culmination of years of hard work and the beginning of the transition to the next phase of the party."

"Overwhelmingly, the people coming to the Independent Party are joining because they are frustrated by the polarization and hyper-partisanship that they are seeing in the Legislature and in our elections," Peralta said.

In anticipation of being declared a major party, Independent Party officials issued a call to Oregonians soliciting candidates to run in the party’s first primary election. As a minor party in the past, any candidate could seek the support of the Independent Party, including Democrats and Republicans. It nominated Democrat John Kitzhaber for Oregon governor in 2010 and Republican Dennis Richardson against Kitzhaber in 2014.

Now, candidates will have to be registered with the party, although a party credentials committee could make exceptions.

Candidates who want to appear on the 2016 Independent Party primary election ballot must register with the party by Sept. 10.

Short-lived success?

The benefits of major party status could, however, be short-lived for the Independent Party. The so-called Motor Voter bill passed by the Oregon Legislature earlier this year is scheduled to take effect in 2017, automatically registering hundreds of thousands of Oregon voters based on their driver's license information.

All initially will be registered as nonaffiliated voters, likely dropping the Independent Party's registration level below the 5 percent mark. State elections officials will send postcards to the newly registered voters, giving them the option of remaining unaffiliated, registering with a major or minor party, or canceling their registration. Only a concerted and successful push by the Independent Party to register a sizable share of these new voters will allow it to maintain its major party status.

But even if the Independent Party is only a major party for one campaign cycle, it could still have an outsized impact on Oregon politics — even if none of its candidates win. Although Democrats currently hold all statewide elected offices and control both chambers of the Oregon Legislature, it is possible that Independent Party challengers might draw more votes away from Democrat candidates, thereby increasing the odds for Republican success in a number of races.

"About 90 percent of legislative districts in Oregon are not seriously contested by either the Democrats or the Republicans,” Peralta said. “In those districts, the races are essentially decided in the primary election by the most partisan voters. This is a big part of the polarization we are seeing.”

Rapid rise

The rise of the Independent Party has been impressive. Founded in 2008 by petitions bearing the signatures of more than 30,000 registered voters, it has grown steadily. Although 5 percent of registered voters may not sound like a lot, it is far more than any other minor party in the state. All the others are under 1 percent, including the Constitution, Libertarian and Green parties, which have been around longer.

But the increase of registered Independent Party voters is not without controversy. In June, the state's Democratic and Republican parties accused the Independent Party of attracting voters who did not realize they had registered with an organized party. The accusations were accompanied by a poll financed by House Democrats that found 22 percent of Independent Party voters thought they actually were registered as nonaffiliated voters.

"If we're going to have major parties, we need to make sure their members actually intended to join, and that they are active and engaged in democratic processes," Oregon Democratic Party Chairman Frank Dixon said when the poll was released.

Independent Party officials do not dispute the findings, but insist many Oregon voters are looking for organized alternatives to the Democrat and Republican parties. Last week, the Independent Party released a poll of its own that found just one-third of Oregon voters feel well represented by the two major parties, compared to 40 percent of voters who believe that a third major party is needed. The poll also found that 80 percent of voters surveyed would consider voting for Independent Party candidates or joining the party, and one in five Oregon voters would consider joining the Independent Party of Oregon.

"This survey shows that there is strong support for the Independent Party and its candidates heading into the 2016 election. Oregonians, like voters across the country, do not feel well represented by the two-party system and are ready for a third mainstream alternative," Peralta said when the poll was released.