Should Oregon change how we conduct primary elections? And if so, open or unified primaries?

Kari Chisholm FacebookTwitterWebsite

Once again, Oregon voters may have the chance to upend the way we do primary elections in our state.

There are two ballot measures seeking qualification to the ballot that would change primaries -- one well-funded, one less so.

The "open primary" initiative (pdf) is similar to ones we've seen before. All candidates, regardless of party, would appear on the May primary ballot and the top two would advance to the general election -- again, regardless of party. Two Democrats, two Republicans, one of each, one major party and one minor party, whatever. Whoever's in the top two -- even if one candidate gets over 50% -- would advance to the November election.

The "unified primary" initiative (pdf) is a bit different. Under this plan, all candidates, regardless of party, would appear on the May primary ballot and the top two would advance to the general election -- again, regardless of party. So far, the same thing. But here's where it gets interesting: Under the unified primary, each voter could vote for zero, one, several, or even all of the candidates for a single office. All of those votes would get totaled up, and the top two would move ahead. Watch the video for a simple four-minute explanation.

But what about the role of political parties? After all, one major complaint has been that parties ought to be allowed to have a closed members-only process for nominating their champion. A secondary complaint is that by hiding partisan affiliation, voters are kept in the dark about candidates' ideologies. This time, both the open primary and the unified primary have attempted to address these concerns.

In both cases (and with nearly identical language), the measures would allow all candidates to choose to have his or her partisan affiliation (per voter registration) listed on the ballot. In addition, should a political party endorse one or more candidates in a race, those candidates could choose to have those endorsements listed as well. This provision is certainly intended to give political parties a role in the nominating process -- and would seem to create a large and new role for the internal organization of the parties. It also would also provide voters with critical information (a failing of previous versions of the concept).

So, one of my major concerns has been alleviated (hiding partisan information and disempowering parties), but I'm still not sure these proposals are a good idea.

Now, let's be clear. If I were making a purely financial call here, I'd be all for these measures. After all, open primaries are like a full employment for political operatives.

But take a look at what's happening in California in today's primary election -- run under "top two" rules that are basically the same as the proposed open primary for Oregon.

Now, the unified primary supporters will surely point out that this sort of strategic gamesmanship and the worrying about spoiler effects in multi-candidate races goes away under their model. But they've still got the top-two concept with the prospect of expensive intra-party showdowns extending for six more months.

So, my question is this: Does the prospect of more competitive races, more intra-party fights in the fall, and more expensive races excite you? (Professionally, it kinda does, for me.) Or does it make you support the flawed partisan primary process we have now?

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