Shakin’ up the political process

Senate Bill 1066 passed through the Oregon Legislature this week, offering a full tuition waiver for children and spouses of U.S. Armed Forces personnel who have died during active duty, become fully disabled during service or died as a result of a disability sustained during active duty, all after Sept. 11.

Hey, independents! Tired of sitting on the political sidelines every primary season? After this November, you might not have to.

As Obama and Clinton supporters will no doubt be reminding everyone as the voter registration deadline of April 29 looms on the horizon, Oregon voters must be registered with a party in Oregon in order to vote in its primary, effectively excluding independents and members of third parties from participating in the selection of major candidates.

As one might expect, a healthy number of voters thinks this is crap. Phil Kiesling, one of those voters and also a former secretary of state, has spearheaded a couple of efforts to change the system and create open primaries in Oregon that would allow all voters to participate in every party’s primaries.

The last of those efforts, in 2006, failed to get enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, and so this election cycle, Kiesling is trying again.

“The open primary encourages people of wider views to run and allows those people to focus on more of the issues of importance rather than the second and third-tier issues that dominate primary elections now,” he said in a February interview with the Willamette Week.

The notion of open versus closed primaries is an interesting enough proposition to consider, but Kiesling’s initiative also has a provision to create what is sometimes called a “blanket” system, where the two candidates with the most number of primary votes would be the ones sent to the general election ballot, regardless of party (with the exception of presidential candidates).

Under this system, heavily Democratic or Republican districts could see general elections between two Democrats or two Republicans, shaking up our current electoral system��-like, whoa-in the process.

Proponents of the initiative received a blessing from the Supreme Court a couple of weeks back, which upheld the constitutionality of a blanket primary law in Washington State, the first test of which will be Aug. 19, according to The Oregonian. But such a shift has a long way to go before it can become a reality in Oregon.

In the meantime, such a proposal brings up scores of questions about our concepts of and assumptions about our democracy. In areas that lean heavily toward one party or another, a blanket-like system has an opportunity to provide a higher level of choice to voters. As a fairly liberal person who lives in an extremely liberal area, the idea of getting to choose between two Democrats (or maybe even a Democrat and a Green) holds some appeal for me, as opposed to automatically voting for the Democrat.

On the other hand, such a system would also be utterly disenfranchising to the minority of conservative voters who live in my area. Under this proposed system, the two Democrats would have to reach out from their bases to court those who would normally vote for the Republican, not to mention the small but not insignificant number of people who would otherwise vote for third-party candidates.

This scenario is somewhat of a centrist’s dream, and on that note, it’s telling that Kiesling’s last signature-gathering effort failed despite 2006 survey data showing that Oregonians supported such a proposal by almost two to one. Yet, Oregon’s political parties almost unanimously opposed it, just as they opposed this year’s version. An open blanketed primary would have the potential to disperse the consolidated power of both Democrats and Republicans, and a two-person-max general election could certainly make third parties irrelevant altogether.

It’s a small wonder it has been hard for Kiesling’s proposal to gain both traction and money when the partisan powers that be are exactly what the measure would be attacking. At the time of the Willamette Week interview, Kiesling had only one major donor. Yet, more than a few of the state’s political heavyweights have publicly supported the measure, including U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer and former Gov. John Kitzhaber.

A large part of this question comes down to the usefulness of political parties: How does it serve the function of democracy to have closed primaries and a general election that, in practice, always comes down to a Democrat and a Republican? Would the will of the people be better served if every voter had a say in a party’s primary, regardless of whether that voter’s views aligned with that party at all? And jeez, what would a primary campaign look like that had every candidate fighting for every voter?

None of these questions have easy answers. There are very questionable aspects to this new system. Yet, the current system is so heavily partisan that they’re questions worth putting on Oregon’s kitchen table. Let’s sign the petition for this measure, and put it on the ballot in November. More information can be found at