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Same old primary needs a fix

Oregon voters, rise up. You have nothing to lose but your chains!- In the upcoming May primary, registered Democrats can choose only among Democratic candidates for a vast number of key offices: 75 legislative seats; three statewide offices (treasurer, secretary of state and attorney general); five U.S. representative positions; and one U.S. Senate seat. Similarly, Republican voters can only choose among Republican candidates.

The 25 percent of Oregonians who belong to neither major party, the vast majority of them 'unaffiliated'? They can vote only in 'nonpartisan' races Ñ for example, for judges and city and county commissioners.

A century ago, Oregon adopted the nation's first direct primary election, taking the selection of Democratic and Republican nominees out of the proverbial 'smoke-filled backrooms' of party bosses. Today, Oregon voters have less choice than those in almost every other state.

What to do? Simply change the rules Ñ and adopt the 'New Oregon Primary.'

Under the New Oregon Primary, every Oregon voter, regardless of his or her party registration (or lack thereof), would receive an identical ballot in the May primary. All candidates would be listed. Voters could then vote for their favorite candidate, in each race.

The top two vote-getters Ñ again, regardless of party affiliation Ñ would advance to the November election. If a single candidate garnered 50 percent or more of the vote in May, that candidate alone would be listed on the November ballot (and subject to write-in challenges).

This change is both simple to enact and popular. It only requires a statutory change, by either the Oregon Legislature or voters via an initiative. A 2003 poll sponsored by the Oregon Progress Forum found support for this reform by a margin of 59 percent to 21 percent, with registered Democrats and Republicans as strongly supportive as so-called independent voters. (For more information, including draft legislation, visit the Web site at www.oregonprogressforum.org.)

Because the New Oregon Primary eliminates official 'party nominees,' it also neatly sidesteps recent court decisions that have invalidated so-called blanket primaries in Washington and California. The May election would be transformed into a qualifying election in which candidates would earn the right to make the finals.

From the beginning, candidates could run to seek the most votes possible. No longer would they be forced to zig to the left or right to please vocal factions within the Democratic and Republican parties Ñ and then try to zag to the center once nominated.

This would attract more Ñ and different Ñ candidates for public office. Voters would also enjoy true voter registration freedom, because those decisions would no longer diminish their electoral choices in any way.

Most important, the change promises more competition and a better kind of partisanship. Rather than a narrow partisanship Ñ focused primarily on party membership and labels Ñ the New Oregon Primary aims to promote a healthier, more vigorous partisanship based on ideas.

Almost 30 percent of eligible Oregonians today aren't even registered. Voter turnout, especially among younger citizens, continues to drop. Even among those still engaged in politics, skepticism and even cynicism grows.

More choice. More competition. A braver, more interesting civic dialogue. What do we have to lose?

Phil Keisling, Oregon's secretary of state from 1991-99, is a vice president at ProDX, an Oregon information technology company. He lives in Southeast Portland.