Have you heard of the Oregon Open Primary? It's former Oregon Secretaries of State Phil Keisling and Norma Paulus' proposal to dramatically change the way we hold primary elections here in Oregon. Over the past several weeks, Keisling has been doing the rounds in the state media plugging for the initiative effort, such as this commentary he wrote in last Sunday's Oregonian.
Instead of our current, “closed” primaries in Oregon, where you must be a registered member of a party to vote in that party's primaries, Keisling, Paulus, and their supporters have proposed a dramatic reshaping of our electoral system. Under the initiative, there would be one primary election for every partisan position short of President, in which all registered voters could cast a ballot, regardless of their party registration. Similarly, every candidate for the given office would compete in this one primary election. The ballot would list candidates' own party registration, as well as any party endorsements they have received. The two candidates receiving the most votes in the primary would advance to compete in the general election, regardless of party affiliation.
The initiative is called the Open Primary Act, but this system it proposes is not really the standard "open primary". Instead, it is more properly qualified as a “nonpartisan blanket primary”, and is best known as a "top-two" or "jungle primary". The motives behind the measure; to open up our elections to greater participation, are noble and in the spirit of Oregon's history of electoral reforms. I wholeheartedly agree with the premise that we should consider how to reform our elections and increase participation. However, in my opinion, the Open Primary Act in itself is a poor way to change our elections.
The problem with the jungle primary is that while it is supposed to make the candidates in the general election more representative of the entire population, it's actually very bad at doing this. The chance for a candidate to play a spoiler role is dramatically increased when there are multiple candidates from the same party. There is a built in incentive for a party to run fewer candidates. Take this hypothetical (but not especially unbelievable) situation. There are 4 Democrats and 2 Republicans running for office. The candidates evenly split the votes from each party:
Oops! Voters overwhelmingly wanted a Democrat in office, but because Republican voters didn't split the vote as much, we'll be seeing two Republican candidates in the general election. Of course, the exact specifics of this situation are unlikely, and party loyalty is never absolute. However, the same basic problem also exists in terms of political ideology:
Once again, most voters were moderate, but it will be the two candidates furthest away from the middle of the political spectrum who will move on. Now these exact numbers are silly, but historically the top-two primary system has had this polarizing effect. Take the 1991 Gubernatorial election in Louisiana, where the jungle primary originated. The competing candidates included Edwin Edwards, a blatantly corrupt former Governor (Democrat); David Duke, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan (Republican); the sitting Governor Buddy Roemer (Republican), and a number of lesser-known candidates. The extremes voted for Edwards and Duke, while everyone in the middle split their votes between Roemer and the other candidates. Had they coalesced around Roemer, he would have moved on. Instead, Edwards and Duke advanced, resulting in the Edwards rallying cry; “Vote for the Crook: It's Important!”. Polls taken on election day show Roemer would have beaten either candidate.
These types of situations may occur only rarely, but they still would be of major concern to the parties. The clear incentive on parties is to run fewer candidates in competitive races, and lo and behold: the initiative allows them to make endorsements in primary elections through a process of their own choosing. Thus, it is in a party's strategic interest to limit the number of candidates by making an endorsement. This contradicts the very reason why we would switch to the top-two primary: to give voters more choice.
It would also be prudent to consider how the system has performed in Louisiana. It turns out, top-two primaries have worked so well there that the state legislature resoundingly voted to eliminate the system for Congressional races. One of the bill's authors called the jungle primary, “the best incumbent protection system in the United States”. In other words, those living under the top-two system considered closed party primaries like ours a step up. It would behoove us to ask why we should switch to a system that is already being abandoned in its home state.
The top-two primary is not the way to go. However, as I said before, Oregon has a long history of enabling its citizens to actively participate in their democracy, and we must continue to push for new reforms that will encourage electoral participation. Instead of the deeply flawed Louisiana system, I would propose a far better alternative: same-day voter registration. Representative Cannon advocated for the idea here at BlueOregon during last year's session. Allowing previously unregistered voters to register and cast a ballot on election day has been immensely successful in those states which allow same-day registration; they consistently have some of the highest voter turnout rates in the nation. Louisiana, by contrast, has some of the worst turnout in the country in Congressional races (the top-two primary cannot apply to Presidential races).
Amending the state Constitution to allow for same-day registration would also have the de facto effect of opening up our primaries. While participating in a partisan primary would still technically require a voter to be a registered member of that party, any voter could simply change their party registration on election day. As far as I can tell, it's perfectly constitutional; primaries in several other states work this way. Thus, same-day registration still allows independent voters to have a voice, but unlike a jungle primary it boosts turnout, and assures that voters in the general election will have a real choice.
We must continue to reform and improve our elections, and all reforms will have their own disadvantages and problems. But all in all, there are too many better alternatives to the top-two primary to justify implementing it in Oregon.