Legislative Changes

Two ideas are circulating that would substantially change the way we electe members to the legislature.  The first, which former Secretary of State Phil Keisling has been promoting for years, would pit the most popular primary candidates against each other in the general election--irrespective of party.

The second plan, introduced in varying proposals by Beaverton Democrat Charlie Ringo, would make all seats in the legislature nonpartisan. 

"This Legislature is unable to solve Oregon's most basic problems," Ringo said after a Senate hearing on his bills Tuesday. "And the reason is, we're torn apart by partisanship."

The assumption here is that political polarization is the problem and structural nonpartisanship the solution.  Do you agree?  Are these the best solutions to address that problem?  Is one of the ideas better than the other?

Senate Bills 602, 603, 604
Oregonian article
Statesman Journal article

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    I could be talked into a jungle-primary in which the top two vote-getters proceed to the general election. It all depends on the details. That would likely cause a bit more moderation - in liberal districts, the relatively small number of Republicans might help choose between two Democrats; and in conservative districts, the relatively small number of Democrats might help choose between two Republicans. In both cases, the more moderate choice would likely win out.

    But a nonpartisan ballot? No way.

    The first thing you learn when walking door to door for a candidate is that 80-90% of the people you meet say, "Is he a Democrat?" and when you respond affirmatively, it's "Thanks! I'll vote for him!"

    We politicos fight over the last 10-20% of the electorate - the swing. But that means that 80-90% don't care about the campaign; they just vote the party. To remove that information from the decision making process is a disservice. In fact, it'll just empower the powerful - as people will then make their decisions based on endorsements... "Gee, if Kitzhaber endorsed him, he must be the Democrat."

    Voters need more info, not less. In fact, I'd support allowing people to earn the endorsements of multiple parties (at least, making it easier than it is now) and making it easier to create a party in Oregon. Then, you'd have 20-30 parties - and candidates would run under lots of banners; giving voters even more info.

    More parties; not less.

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    Then to play devil's advocate, do you think Portland City Council members and the mayor are elected by an uninformed electorate?

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    Nonpartisan elections can function more easily in city council settings because the city is a small enough political entity. Candidates can go around to all parts of the city relatively easily, cheaply, and quickly. Thus, they can campaign everywhere within their district. Further, the small scale of the district allows for greater citizen involvement, information, and comment. You don't need a partisan affiliation when you know very well how the candidate stands on all the issues. This is made all the easier by Portland's relative political homogeneity and activism. People take the time to know their candidates, and, really, they're generally just choosing from flavors of liberal. Finally, once on the five-member council, the small size makes party coalitions less important - everyone knows everyone and their stances.

    Statewide, such a program is harder to implement. When a legislator works in Salem and represents Burns Junction, or Lane County, it's harder to get out there and meet with voters and other legislators, get them to know you and your positions. There may be fewer people running for office; the array of positions is far greater both in larger districts and within the state legislature. Once in office, there's 30 senators and 60 representatives - knowing the D or R (or G or L) can help a lot when lawmakers try to work together.

  • LT (unverified)

    The first thing you learn when walking door to door for a candidate is that 80-90% of the people you meet say, "Is he a Democrat?" and when you respond affirmatively, it's "Thanks! I'll vote for him!"

    In what county are you saying this has happened? Multnomah or one of the less urban counties?

    Could there not be other criteria like whether the voter has ever heard of the candidate, agrees with the candidate? Or maybe disagrees with the candidate but has known that person for several years because they live down the street, coached Little League, were involved in neighborhood association?

    Years ago when a popular Republican had no Democratic challenger in Marion County, a 3rd party candidate won something like 20% of the vote (and as I recall, more that than in the pcts near his home). I doubt that was by party definition alone. Many counties have 20% registration outside major parties. Those people should have a voice in nominations.

    It would seem to me the way to win over Independents and swing voters would be providing information in the form of stands on issues, neighborhood coffees, other chances for voters to talk directly to candidates.

    But then, I was a registered Indep/NAV for 6 years at the turn of the century. Maybe those who have been in the same party all their lives have a diff. point of view.

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    I'm sympathetic to both Keisling's and Ringo's bills. However, I think parties do serve a purpose so I don't know if we really need to go all the way towards non-partisanship. Keisling's idea would create more involvement and debate in races that are overwhelmingly Democratic or Republican, where right now the race is really decided in the primary. It would be better to have the general election mean something.

    What I would really like to see is proportional representation in the House. Eliminate districts and have people vote by party and a list of names as in a parlimentary system. Parties get seats according to the percentage of the votes they get. If the Libertarian or Pacific Green parties can get at least 1/60 of the vote, they would get a seat. We already have the Senate based on geography so leave that as it is.

    Proportional representation would let parties be parties, rather than the ideologically vague coalitions they are today. It would mean parties would campiagn on ideas during the election, and form coalitons after the election, rather than worry about geography and having to form some kind of coaliton before the election.

    The House would be more about parties and ideas, while the Senate would be more about geographical representation and individuals. I could see making the Senate non-partisan in this system.

    So there you have it, make the Senate non-partisan and turn the House into a european style parliment with proportional representation!


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    LT, you asked, "what county?" did I find 80-90% Democrats.... My example should have been more clear. Typically, when one goes canvassing for Democrats, the canvasser spends most of their time on 3/4 or 4/4 Democrats....

    I suppose the opposite is true for Republican campaigns. My larger point is this: Most voters in most elections, even in heavily 'swing' areas vote a party line. Political observers spend all their time analyzing the swing in the middle, but let's not make it more difficult for the 80-90% that vote more-or-less straight Democrat or Republican.

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    I would definitely favor a 'top two' primary, although I am fine with keeping the party labels on the ballot.

    Imagine some of those exurb and rural races where we might wind up getting a moderate republican against and right-winger. Then the D's can help elect the moderate in the general, rather than losing to the extremist who wins the R primary today!

  • Michael (unverified)

    Personally I just think we should bill the Republicans and Democrats for the primary. Let them pay for their own promotional gigs. One other idea is to seperate the re-apportionment function from the Sec. of State and have a non-partisan panel do that as is done in Iowa. That change would hopefully give us more competitive races. M.W.

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    I think the polarization of politics is the central problem facing the legislature. I don't think it arises from partisan politics, but addressing partisanism may be the way to begin to fix things.

    As America becomes more fragmented, we increasingly can avoid any engagement with the "other." This is a fairly well-developed theme, so I won't harp on it. The upshot is that our natural inclination toward tribalism finds plenty of cultural support right now.

    I'd be in favor of anything that undermined this tendency, particularly if it was a statutory solution. Easy enough to scrap it if it is a failure. I'm also not persuaded by Cody's analysis that legislative and city races are politically different animals. Only a tiny fraction of voters ever see the candidates, even in city campaigns.

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    In fact (to add to my last statement above), an argument could be made that nonpartisan campaigns would increase voter participation and engagement because candidates could cross the line into territory staked out by what would formerly have been the opposing candidate's home base.

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    It's not the parties, it's the rural-vs.-urban. Ted Ferrioli by any other name would still be a royal pain in the keester. So, for that matter, would Charlie Ringo. 8c)

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    Yeah, but in rural districts, it's not a Dem vs. Republican, it's a moderate vs. hard-right Republican. And the same dynamic in SE Portland, reversed. The hope with these solutions (either variant) is to tip the balance away from fanatacism. I think it's worth a shot.

    It's interesting to think how Randy Leonard might have fared in a partisan election. He might well have faced a far-left candidate with impeccible party credentials who earned endorsements from the bulk of the party establishment. Not only is Leonard able to run on his own idiosyncratic slate of issues, but he also is abetted by the nonpartisan elections in his effort to reach out to diverse constituencies. Counter-intuitively, the result is that he's garnered enormous far-left respect.

  • the prof (unverified)

    Kari, Grossly unfair to post a discussion based on our 1 am email conversations!

    Just be forewarned, I am a big fan of political parties, based on almost every shred of empirical evidence that I've seen.

    Some background that I draw upon when thinking about these reforms.From the perspective of the citizen:

    • Most citizens are not that interested in politics. It is not as important to their everyday lives as their jobs, families, entertainment, etc. This is not an editorial comment, it is reality based on nearly 50 years of survey data.
    • Political parties are a useful "shortcut" for voters, allowing them to avoid the costly route of learning the specifics of each candidate's positions. Parties also force voters to choose governing "teams".
    • In the absence of parties, most evidence indicates that voters rely on interest group endorsements, incumbency, or other simplifying cues. The notion that in a non-partisan election, citizens are transformed into the democratic ideal of a highly motivated, interested, and informed has little basis in reality.

    from the perspective of institutions

    • Institutional reforms very often have unintended consequences. Have the proponents really thought through these reforms (for instance, general elections in Louisiana--which has a system like Keisling proposes--may feature two conservatives. The Keisling proposal may result in two liberal Democrats in the general, not moderates (as he claims). It all depends on the distribution of preferences in the electorate.
    • If we have a non-partisan legislature, on what basis would the legislature organize itself? How would committee assignments be handled? Would there still be party caucuses?

    Everyone bemoans party polarization, but this is a nationwide phenomenon more than 25 years in development. The best and most accessible treatment of this is contained in Fiorina's "Culture Wars" book. There, you'll see that Fiorina blams elites, and specifically electoral rules. But far from suggesting reforms like Keisling's or Ringo's, you'll see that Fiorina blames two major anti-party reforms:

    1) The development of the candidate centered election system

    2) Party control over the redistricting process.

    If there is one thing that we could do in Oregon to attack partisan polarization, it is not Keisling's or Ringo's reforms, it's this: assign legislative redistricting to a non-partisan commission and stop the legislature from creating party strongholds for both parties.

    Sorry to go on so long.

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    Prof, actually this open discussion was posted by Jeff Alworth without any prompting from me.... Great minds think alike, I guess...

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    "If we have a non-partisan legislature, on what basis would the legislature organize itself? How would committee assignments be handled? Would there still be party caucuses?"

    Holding non-partisan elections would not eliminate factions or parties. Legislators would still form caucuses on a variety of issues or identities as they do now, in addition to party. If parties didn't exist, someone would immediately invent them. Holding non-partisan elections isn't the same thing as eliminating parties or caucuses. We still have freedom of association in the Constitution. But nothing in the Constitution says that government and taxpayers have to facilitate and subsidize the organization of parties and the election of their nominees.

    Our legislators are smart people. I'm sure if we elected them in non-partisan elections they would still be able to figure out among themselves who to choose as leaders. People would still know generally what faction or party any given individual was associated with.

    Non-partisan elections would enable a more dynamic and free flowing party and faction system where legislators could form their own constituencies rather than be restricted by party label. But they would still be restricted once they developed a particular identity and associations with certain groups.

    Proportional representation would achieve essentially the same thing, because it would be easier for more parties to gain seats. Voters wouldn't have to choose just between the two big tent coalitions, Democrats and Republicans. Voters would choose from among a variety of parties that more truely represented their beliefs and interests, knowing they weren't throwing their vote away or being a spoiler to anyone. The parties that won seats would then form coalitions after the election.

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    I also like the idea Michael touched upon above, which is to create a non or bi-partisan panel to objectively create legislative districts, both at the federal and state levels. We've seen how partisan the redistricting process has become in several states around the country, most notoriously in Texas. As long as we have districts, they should be created and drawn as technocratically as possible rather than with an eye towards giving one party an unnatural advantage over the other. Politicians shouldn't be able to choose their own voters by rigging districts. The job should be handed over to an independent panel with equal representation. This would inevitably result in more competitive districts and fewer super-safe districts.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    The biggest problem with politics is campaign finance. Any proposed change should be viewed in this light. Doing away with party identification of legislators would reduce readibly available information and increase the importance of campaign spending to communicate where a candidate stands.

    The Portland City Council is a different matter. Democrats dominate and many Republicans are of the moderate sort [read pro-big business but not for the miniturization of government and making what is left of it subservient to Christianity]. Party ID does not give as much useful information in this case. Of course, before Tom Potter, I can't remember the last time a soundly outspent candidate won a council seat.

    The power given to the majority party is another matter. If we want to decrease the negative influence of parties, we should curtail the power of a simple majority of legislators, through the House Speaker and Senate President, to dictate the legislature's entire agenda. The current system gives the legislature a "winner take all" character that subverts public will and befuddles most voters.

    Proportional representation has some advantages, but under the present campaign finance system, I fear it will increase the power of money. It will no longer be possible for candidates to walk their districts, not a good thing.

    Instant runoff voting would be a conservative change that would allow diversity in political parties, so people who are not confortable with the D's and R's could find a political home without throwing away their votes.

  • Rick Hanson (unverified)

    Oregon is a libertarian state where voting for the person has always been more important than voting for the party. In fact, more and more Oregonians, particularly younger Oregonians, are registering outside the two major parties.

    These Oregonians are disenfranchised by the current closed primary because they don't get to vote until the General, when the outcome of most elections has already been decided.

    At the last General Election, 100 percent of the 153 legislative and congressional offices on the ballot in California did not change parties. The winner was elected at the primary by those with access to paddock.

    An open primary ensures that no one is denied access and their fundamental right to choose who represents them. No longer would all voters be forced to choose from the candidates who survive the D or R primary. Think of a horse race where the jockeys all get together under the stands and pick their favorite two to run on the field. How fun would that be?

  • Rick Hanson (unverified)

    In the interest of full disclosure, I am setting up a campaign organization to put the Voter Choice initiative (Keisling's idea) on the ballot. I'd like to clarify what it is and what it isn't.

    It is: A top-two qualifying primary. Each voter, regardless of party affiliation or lack thereof, gets the same primary ballot and can vote for any candidate, regardless of party affiliation or lack thereof. Candidates' names appear with their party affiliation noted. The two candidates who receive the most votes, regardless of party affiliation or lack thereof, run against each other at the General.

    It is not: A nonpartisan election bill, nor does not make the Legislature nonpartisan. That seems neither possible nor advisable. Parties have existed almost since the founding of the Republic, and they are not going to disappear because we try to legislate them away, anymore than drinking stopped during Prohibition.

    A nonpartisan legislature simply obscures candidates' true party affiliations. As a voter, I want to know if someone is a party member. This information should be plainly available, and Keisling's proposal prints it on the ballot just as happens now.

    The Voter Choice measure gives increased access and choice at the front end, and encourages candidates to build winning coalitions from the start of their campaigns, instead of forcing them to run to the party base and then back to the center in the General.

    Will it affect partisanship? I expect that the competition of ideas will improve and give parties more reason to be.

    Finally, can it win? Washington voters in November passed a virtually identical measure 60-40. Our own polling suggests a similar level of support here, with no discernible demographic, geographic, partisan, or any other difference. This measure appeals to Oregonians of every stripe.

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    Thanks, Rick. One question - if someone gets over 50% in the May primary, is it over?

  • LT (unverified)

    I do believe we need more attention to campaign finance reform. Some practice that in their lives by giving to candidates rather than giving to groups so they'll have a better idea where that money is going. A friend who supported Measure 9 campaign finance reform in 1994 said recently that knowing where the money is coming from and where it is going is the essence of campaign finance reform.

    I wonder if the person who posted "Eliminate districts and have people vote by party and a list of names as in a parlimentary system. Parties get seats according to the percentage of the votes they get." has ever worked on the campaign of a close friend or been involved in party politics. If you campaigned for old friend Sue over Sam (or Sam over Sue because you had strong disagreements with Sue)why would you want a party to say "sorry, you have no input into our decision that neither Sam nor Sue made the cut and you are supposed to be happy that Jack is your new state legislator"? And why doesn't that run into the same powerbroker things that resulted in political machines 100 years ago?

    I have done both party work and campaigning for a close friend and don't trust parties to choose nominees (and that shuts out those who don't register with a party). Which is why I support Keisling and Ringo.

    What I don't understand about "instant runoff" is why that would solve anything. Perhaps advocates of that system can explain why it would have been a good idea in the Gregoire/ Rossi Washington Gov. race. Many elections have 2 polar opposites like that.

    I did like this from Rick: At the last General Election, 100 percent of the 153 legislative and congressional offices on the ballot in California did not change parties. The winner was elected at the primary by those with access to paddock.

    An open primary ensures that no one is denied access and their fundamental right to choose who represents them. No longer would all voters be forced to choose from the candidates who survive the D or R primary. Think of a horse race where the jockeys all get together under the stands and pick their favorite two to run on the field. How fun would that be?

  • Rick Hanson (unverified)

    Response to Kari: No, it's not over if one candidate receives more than 50 percent in the primary. That is Oregon's practice in nonpartisan elections, but it is NOT part of the Keisling Voter Choice proposal for the partisan elections addressed by the measure.

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    I'd oppose Keisling's and Ringo's measures, both, but especially Keisling's.

    Keisling's idea being like Louisiana's system is a bad thing, IMHO. All it takes to ruin the system is for one party to clear the decks and unify behind two candidates, while the other party runs more than two candidates, diluting the votes accordingly, and ensuring that only one party is represented in the general.

    It amounts to unilateral disarmament by one party, and I think we all know which party that's going to be, because the Republicans damn sure aren't going to dry up and blow away.

    Furthermore, if your party is not representing your views and running candidates in tune with them, you have every right to switch, or even start a new party. Was it really that far back we had Al Mobley representing the OCA in the general? I can't even remember which Repub's candidacy he torpedoed (Frohnmayer?), but I'm damn thankful that our side didn't split off from Barbara Roberts, allowing her to be one of my favorite Governors ever.

    (Why my brother got to hear her speak at his grad. from Tech, while I got a Construction Company owner or whatever for mine at Western, is another matter, which I will happily bring up when next I talk to her.)

    As a Democrat, I shouldn't be allowed to "help" the Republicans decide who they want to stand up in the general without my input. And neither should the Republicans decide my candidates.

    You can't legislate more support for third parties where before there was less, either. They've either got it, or they don't. People don't stop standing behind their values, or listening to the presentations, just because the labels have been removed.

    But you can sure wipe it out:

    Keisling's proposal narrows it down to two in the general, so if anything, that ensures that a Green, New Party, Constitution, Reform, or whatever candidate will never appear on the general ballot. Even the worst major party effort in a statewide race in Oregon gets 30%, usually, a nut even the Reformistas couldn't crack with Perot.

    So why don't we propose second-choice, instant-runoff voting instead?

  • LT (unverified)

    Because I read it in the print version, I don't know the URL although oregonlive.com/news would give the link to the opinion section.

    I think Deborah Kafoury's column (Sunday Oregonian Commentary section) about the perspective of a young stay at home Mom who used to be a legislative leader on what needs to change in the legislature is worthy of debate--either here or as its own topic. Her ideas make sense to me.

    I noticed the Public Editor column this week is about blogs.

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    Hi Rick,

    One critique of Keisling's primary proposal is that it seems to heavily reward party discipline, which tends to happen more on the R side than not (as John D pointed out).

    It's not hard to imagine a scenario in which there are two Republicans and three Democrats running in equally competitive primary races. Assuming a competitive primary in both, the Dem candidates could split their vote in thirds, while the Republicans split their primary vote 51-49%. Numerically, the two Rs would be the top vote getters.

    Even if over 50% of primary voters cast ballots for Dem candidates who shared basic progressive values, the General election would end up being a contest between two Republicans.

    Again, this is just one scenario in which a majority of voters casting ballots for progressive candidates would have to face a general election between two conservatives.

    No system is perfect, but I wonder if there aren't some unintended consequences that might make this system less fair and less democratic.

  • the prof (unverified)

    Rick write: Oregon is a libertarian state where voting for the person has always been more important than voting for the party. In fact, more and more Oregonians, particularly younger Oregonians, are registering outside the two major parties.

    Evidence? More and more of ALL citizens are registering as independents; Oregon is not unique in this respect. People always say they "vote for the person" but the reality is that most voters, most of the time, don't know enough about "the person" to make such a decision, and instead rely on cues.

    Tom: GREAT COMMENT. Were you in my class...? :-)

    Rick: I'm not necessarily opposed (but am opposed to Ringo's proposal), I just don't want a reform for the sake of reform. If Phil believes partisanship is the problem (as he claims in the editorial), I'm just not clear how this will solve this problem free of changing how we redraw lines.

    I hope you can share with Phil the idea for a non-partisan commission for district lines. This (perhaps along with an open / runoff primary) holds great potential for reducing partisan divisions.

    Kari: I think Alworth is monitoring our email!

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    I think Alworth is monitoring our email!

    Mwoh ha ha!

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    You capture precisely the direction of my thinking.

    Phil wants to implement this system because he believes it will reduce partisan polarization in the legislature. That is the primary rationale, as far as I can tell. The second is to enhance participation and provide voters more influence over the final outcome.

    With respect to the first, Phil's proposal has a number of embedded assumptions, and until I see these tested, I remain skeptical. Rick implies the same when he says that, under this proposal, candidates would be encouraged to construct winning coalitions for the general earlier (the implication being that candidates who could appeal to a broader set of citizens would be more likely to finish in the top 2 in the primary and thus be in the general).

    This depends critically on three things: a) the distribution of preferences in the population, b) the rate of turnout in the primary, and c) the number of candidates.

    First, the Keisling proposal implicitly assumes that voter preferences in Oregon follow a "bell shaped" (flat would also work) distribution, with lots of voters clumped near the median.

    If, however, the distribution of voters is bimodal -- and presidential voting patterns in Oregon indicate that they are -- then candidates will not "run to the middle" in the primary, but will instead run to the centerpoint of their support coalition.

    Second, the Keisling proposal does not consider that turnout in primaries tends to be much lower than in the general. They may reply that this is precisely because Independents can't vote in the primary, and this may be true. However, even in states with open primaries, turnout is much lower.

    The strategic situation for a candidate once again may be this: run to the midpoint(s) of the preferences of the primary voters. And all extant evidence is that primary voters tend to be more extreme ideologically than general election voters.

    Finally, the number of candidates. In a multicandidate race, you are not bound by the logic of 50% + 1, which means that, in a two candidate race, you have every incentive to run to the middle, since the voters on the wings have no other alternative to choose from.

    In a multicandidate race, a winning strategy could be to construct a disciplined support coalition totalling 20 or 30% of the voting population. And, given everything else I've written about the distribution of preferences in Oregon (ideologically and geographically) and the first stage results from Louisiana, this seems a very likely outcome.

    So here is, to me, a possible statewide scenario. You end up with Kevin Mannix on the right, drawing his support from a highly disciplined christian and economically conservative segment; and Erik Sten on the left, drawing his support from the liberal activists in Multnomah, Lane, and Benton counties. (I'm not trying to bash Mannix or Sten here, but I don't think either would deny that they are relatively conservative or liberal).

    <h2>I suppose I need to be convinced that this is not only a possible, but in fact a likely scenario. I know what kind of evidence I could use to test the claims I make above (especially the geographical and ideological distribution of voters / preferences in Oregon), but I don't have the time or the data to look at it right now.</h2>
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