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Revise primary to revive politics

TWO viewS • Should we amend our primary election system or leave it the way it is?

Nearly a century ago, Oregon adopted the nation's partisan primary election. This reform abolished the proverbial 'smoke-filled room' of party bosses and required Democratic and Republican nominees to be selected directly by voters.

Today, it's time for a similarly bold reform: Abolish Oregon's existing political party primary.

Instead, every other May, Oregon should send all registered voters the same ballot Ñ regardless of party registration Ñ and let them vote for the candidate of their choice, in equal disregard to candidates' party affiliations.

Moving from a closed, 'members-only' party primary to a 'maximum choice' primary election aligns with the strong preferences of Oregon voters Ñ and the need to fundamentally change the dominant dynamics of current Oregon politics.

A March 2003 poll of 504 Oregonians, conducted by Davis and Hibbits, showed 59 percent in favor of this change and 21 percent opposed. This overwhelming support was true across every demographic and geographic category, including registered Democrats and Republicans.

Almost 25 percent of all registered voters are now so-called 'independents,' affiliated with no political party. This compares with just 11 percent in 1990. For registered voters under age 35, the 'none of the above' category is more popular than either 'Democrat' or 'Republican.'

Yet during the 1990s, as Oregonians were beating a path to the party door exits in droves, state politics veered off in exactly the opposite direction, getting far more partisan, meaner Ñ and less productive.

Numerous legislative special sessions É record numbers of vetoes É the onslaught of negative ads at campaign seasons É and Oregon's never-ending budget crisis all reflect the dysfunctional nature of contemporary politics.

In theory, party primaries help hold politicians accountable and guarantee a vigorous debate over competing ideologies and proposed solutions.

In practice, party primaries increasingly stifle meaningful debate and act as idea 'bottlenecks.' To navigate through primaries Ñ or avoid a potentially fatal primary challenge Ñ candidates are pressured to pander to narrow, sometimes extreme, agendas, or keep silent about important issues, for fear of alienating key interest groups that hold disproportionate power during primary season.

For example, in Oregon's 2002 gubernatorial primary, not a single Republican candidate uttered such a

semi-innocuous comment as, 'I'm not sure what they'd be, but under some circumstances, we might need to raise taxes to balance the budget.'

Not a single Democratic hopeful risked alienating public employee unions by prominently proclaiming, 'I'm not sure how we fix the Public Employees Retirement System, but it sure is a big problem!'

And no candidate, period, ever said, 'Oregon's budget crisis clearly shows the need for fundamental tax reform.'

Under a 'maximum choice' primary, candidates in the May election would still run as Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Green partiers Ñ or none of the above.

And if no single candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote, the two top vote getters would advance to the November general election Ñ regardless of party affiliation or lack thereof.

Most candidate elections already are held on a basis quite similar to this. The first-round/second-round approach is how Oregon now elects judges, school board members, most city and county officials, and two statewide officials (labor commissioner and school superintendent).

Rather than eviscerate political parties, this change should actually reinvigorate them. Rather than 'coerce' members to join Ñ which is now necessary in order to vote for partisan candidates in May Ñ the Democratic and Republican parties would have to win and retain allegiance on the basis of ideas.

Most important, the change would attract more and better candidates Ñ and promote a far healthier, candid dialogue during campaigns Ñ by spurring office-seekers, from the get-go, to address the issues they believe are most important to the majority of voters.

Phil Keisling served nine years as Oregon's secretary of state. He now is vice president of business development for ProDX, a Portland information technology consulting company. He also is chairman of the Oregon Progress Forum and is active with the Oregon Public Affairs Network and the Portland Schools Foundation.