Posted by Russell Daniels on February 17, 2020 at 4:11 PM
Opinion: Oregon’s closed primaries are degrading state’s legacy of democratic innovation
North Dakota is often credited as the first state to hold a presidential primary, but it was Oregon that invented it. From 1902 to 1914, Oregon was an engine of democracy innovation, passing a number of reforms that gave citizens more direct control over their government, including a system that allowed voters to put measures directly on the ballot, direct elections for U.S. senators, and the ability to nominate candidates for public office in primaries. These progressive reforms were collectively known as the Oregon System.
Back then, almost every Oregonian was a member of one of the two major parties. The Oregon System showed the rest of the country how every voter could successfully be engaged in our democracy. In fact, when California was adopting similar reforms in 1911, the San Francisco Call declared in its Jan. 13 edition “California to Adopt Oregon System.”
We are now failing the vision of those proud Oregonian innovators: 41% of registered Oregon voters will be shut out of the 2020 major-party primaries, one of the most important primary elections in a generation, unless they change their registration. Meanwhile, California and Washington have held nonpartisan, open elections for all contests but the presidential race for the last eight years. And non-affiliated voters have even been able to participate in some presidential primaries in past election cycles. Today, Oregon is one of only nine states in the country that hold taxpayer-funded primaries that only allow Democrats and Republicans to participate, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Meanwhile, the overall percentage of voters identifying as Democrats or Republicans has declined. Unaffiliated voters, on the other hand, have witnessed an increase of more than 250,000 in the past three years. The 960,000 unaffiliated voters in Oregon are rapidly gaining on registered Democrats, who total 974,000 voters and are presently the dominant political party in the state. And this is not a short-term trend—the number of registered Democrats grew by 11% from January 2010 to January 2020, and registered Republicans by 6%, while the number of unaffiliated voters more than doubled. There are 250,000 more unaffiliated voters in our state than Republicans.
Imagine living in a community where you work hard, pay your taxes, and try to be a good citizen. Then your government tells you that in order to vote in publicly funded elections you have to join a private organization. Too bad they don’t live in a free America, you say?
That’s exactly the state of the primary elections in Oregon. And if it is up to Oregon’s Democratic and Republican party insiders, that’s how it will stay.
The Republican Party briefly opened its primaries to a limited extent in 2012, but they’ve remained closed ever since. This past November, the central committee for Oregon’s Democratic Party voted to keep its upcoming primary closed in a vote of 76 to 55, despite noting that a substantial number of Oregon’s unaffiliated voters are traditional constituencies of the party – young, African American, Latino, and Asian.
They were unpersuaded by the fact that unaffiliated voters can participate in the Democratic Party primary in 35 states and that Democratic state parties have already voluntarily opened their 2020 presidential primaries in California, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Idaho and South Dakota. Ironic for a party whose platform, as stated by the Oregon Democratic Party in 2018, includes “We believe in the freedom to vote, access to participation in our democracy, removal of barriers to participation.” Unlike the Democratic and Republican parties, Oregon’s Independent Party opens its elections to all unaffiliated voters and, as a minor party, pays for its primaries itself.
The intransigence of Oregon’s Democratic and Republican party insiders has led our great state to abandon its historical role as a reform leader and fail almost half of our citizens in the process. Oregonians have long prided themselves in creating and maintaining elections that are open and fair and encourage engagement in the political process. As long as we are burdened with a system of closed primaries, a system that disenfranchises almost a million voters, we will be undermining that legacy. It’s time for Oregonians to reclaim the Oregon System, let all voters vote, and lead again. The future of democratic elections in Oregon demands it.