Why the Working Families Party is supporting the Oregon Open Primary ballot measure

By Steve Hughes. Steve is the State Director of Oregon's Working Family Party.

The Oregon Working Families Party supports the Oregon Open Primary ballot measure. We believe that for too long the political system has been rigged against working people, and we see the adoption of this measure as a step toward empowering more voters and enabling a diverse set of voices to set the governance agenda of the state.

As a minor political party we understand as intimately as anyone that election rules matter, and as an organization with a fundamental belief that change comes from the bottom up, we believe that progressive change can only be accomplished if we fundamentally change the game on our broken elections system.

Building independent political power

The WFP is about building independent political power for working people. We have been leaders in the campaigns to win sick days for working Oregonians, we are fighting to make the dream of a college education attainable through our campaign to pass Pay it Forward in the Oregon legislature, we worked with family farmers to pass “Aggie Bongs” in the Oregon legislature to open up sources of financing for small scale farms, and we have been leading champions to create the Oregon State Bank to invest our tax money in Oregon, not Wall Street.

Since the successful passage of fusion voting in Oregon in 2009, we have engaged in electoral activity and issue advocacy designed to advance these issues as pieces of public policy. As a political party we embrace the value of elections, but as political observers we see something else very clearly: in Oregon politics most of the action is in the primaries. Working Families Party members, like all minor party members and unaffiliated voters, can’t participate in those primaries, even though our tax dollars pay for them.

Legislative district lines are drawn to ensure dominance by one major party or the other in all but a few swing districts. Unconstrained amounts of money are then spent by a handful of groups in the remaining swing districts. What results in those few swing districts could be compared to a mini version of the arms race that takes place in Ohio and Florida during presidential elections, while the rest of the state is politely set to the side.

As a minor party that cares about both the process AND policy outcomes, this system seems—to put it bluntly—crazy.

He who writes the rules…

Interestingly, primary elections were once part of a Progressive Era reform movement to diminish the ability of Gilded Age party bosses to hand-select party loyalists for the ballot. By giving rank and file party members the chance to select for themselves which candidates should be on the general election ballot, primaries actually served the purpose of diminishing the influence of the political machines of yester-year.

However, the legislative districting process in Oregon has been used by the major parties over the years to draw an election map full of “safe districts” for one or the other of the major parties. Add to this that the number of people voting in Oregon primaries has been steadily declining since 1960 (the first year for which the Secretary of State publishes statistics) as more people—especially young voters—become completely disaffected from the two party status quo. This means that most important decisions for who will govern the state are made by a very small number of primary voters in a tightly controlled closed primary system of the two major parties. For much of the state, the general election is rendered a mere formality.

Election rules matter. However, nothing stays frozen in time, and yesterday’s democratic reform can shift and atrophy. The rules we have in place right now are a far cry from the spirit of the Progressive Era a century ago. And while we do not believe that Top Two is a panacea for the issue of falling turnout, we are also unconvinced by dire predictions of turnout falling off a cliff if Top Two should pass. Furthermore, we have yet to see anyone demonstrate an actual causal relationship between Top Two voting systems and decreased turnout.

Our experience as a minor party

We can argue over hypotheticals until the cows come home, but none of those discussions actually speak to our lived experience as a minor political party in Oregon. We have spent a great deal of time and resources over the last year and a half growing our base of registered WFP voters from approximately 3500 members at the end of the 2012 election cycle, to over 10,000 members coming into the 2014 election cycle.

The conversations we have had on the street reveal just how deep the vein of political disaffection is that so many people feel when they look at the current state of our politics. Many, especially the young, don’t see the point of registering at all. Paul Wellstone put it best: "When too many Americans don't vote or participate, some see apathy and despair. I see disappointment and even outrage. And I believe that out of this frustration can come hope and action."

We agree.

The bottom line for us as a minor party which has chosen to support the Oregon Open Primary is this: we believe this proposal not only protects but enhances our ability to participate meaningfully in selecting who will govern our state, and what issues they will elevate in their governance. Unlike the measures that have passed in California and Washington, this version of Top Two maintains the integrity of the role for political parties by permitting party endorsements to appear on the ballot. It also enhances fusion voting, allowing multiple party endorsements, to give voters more information about what a particular candidate stands for. And, of course, it opens the door for WFP members and all others who are not registered as either a Democrat or a Republican to cast votes in the primary races that decide so much of who governs this state.

We fully agree that other reforms are needed to improve access for working people to our democratic system. Three that come to mind are public financing of elections, same day voter registration, and moving the date of the primary election closer to the general to avoid protracted and costly campaigns. We will join with any and all to support these efforts. But for this measure that will be decided directly by Oregon voters, we say Vote Yes on the Oregon Open Primary.

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