Top-Two Tilt
Open primary advocates are back, but it’s no sure thing
By Mark Ellis

What if they held an election and no Republicans came?

Doubtless many Oregon “progressives” could live with such an outcome, but backers of Oregon’s Measure 65 understand that the connotations of Democrat-only general elections don’t ring entirely democratic with an electorate used to partisan identifiers and party loyalty. The open primary or “top-two” measure was defeated in the 2006 midterm, an election that saw pluralities for Democrat candidates and progressive measures not just in reliable Oregon, but nationally as well.

Now, despite prognostications that 2008 will result in more left-of-center gains across the board, the top-two consortium is back. In an effort to reassure voters, proponents are pointing to Washington’s recent inaugural primary, which mirrored the proposed system and in most races produced typical Republican versus Democrat runoffs. But even as they offer assurances that their measure won’t lead to a major party’s disenfranchisement, M- 65 advocates reject the premise of the objection. Their operative logic proceeds from the idea that partisan politics is an outmoded paradigm that disenfranchises millions.

Currently, Oregon’s two largest political parties view the primaries as a mechanism for selecting their candidates, who then face off in the general election. Recognized minor parties likewise hold conventions and gatherings to select their candidates, who also automatically qualify to move on to the general election. Only non-affiliated voters freely choose to opt out of any recognized party and therefore opt out of the primary election. At times, both major parties have invited Independent-registered voters to join in their primaries, but neither does so at this time because of the skewed effect on outcomes.

Independent spirit

“Measure 65 is about voting for the person you want to vote for,” says Oregon Open Primary spokesperson Mary Ellen Glynn. She believes the major party system encourages candidates to play to their bases in the primaries in quest of the nomination, a process that marginalizes independent and centrist voices. Having opted out of the primary, many non-affiliated voters become apathetic and sense that ideological partisanship and gridlock are inevitable.

The prize in this electoral lottery is the NAV, aka the non-affiliated voter, who is currently absent by choice from the primary process. M-65 believers stress that an open primary offers every eligible voter an equal voice in deciding who should survive to square off in the final showdown. Opponents believe that choice was offered to every voter at registration and they can again participate in the general election once qualified candidates have been selected.

“We have over 480,000 citizens, a full 25 percent of the electorate, who can’t vote in the primary,” says Glynn, who also cites a statewide poll of likely voters that shows 74 percent support the idea of an open primary. Adding heft to Glynn’s assertions is former Republican Secretary of State Norma Paulus, who offered her support for M-65 with the following statement: “Pragmatic and sensible politicians brought us the Bottle Bill, vote- by-mail, and public beaches. Measure 65 is another demonstration of Oregon’s independent spirit. Voters should always be allowed to choose the best candidate, regardless of party affiliation.”

But the current Republican establishment does not agree with Paulus. Party Chair Vance Day clearly states GOP concerns about how a top-two system would suppress the chances of a candidate from a minor party ever being elected to office. Candidates with a limited network of resources would not stand a chance against the overwhelming dominance of the two major parties. “At first glance,” says Day, “the concept of an open primary appears to give more power to the people; but the reality is much different. An open primary is not the solution to engaging more voters and would cause more problems than it would solve. We must defend our right to a fair election process by protecting all candidates and voters. This is not a partisan issue — it is a fairness issue.”

Louisiana blues

Perhaps for the purposes of analyzing the real effects of top-two or open primaries, another state makes for a better comparison than Washington with its limited record. Louisiana has implemented variations on the theme in state, local and congressional elections since the mid-1970s. Though the two states’ systems have structural differences, the net effect in both is that the top two vote-getters meet in a runoff.

In Louisiana, such primaries routinely advance same-party candidates to the general election. In 1987, the governor’s race was between two Democrats. Another infamous outcome propelled white-supremacist David Duke into a 1991congressional runoff, a scare that had the local GOP scrambling to support the Democrat candidate.

Despite claims that open primaries increase voter turnout, Democrat-only general elections in many liberal Bayou State districts have led to lower registration and turnout, among the lowest in the country. Interestingly, Washington’s first open primary saw turnout fall a few points in 2008. Further, Washington’s first open primary produced two races in which two Democrats advanced, effectively disenfranchising GOP voters in the general election.

Proponents of M-65 explain that these were heavily Democrat districts that no Republican could have hoped to win anyway, but political observers point out that this mindset, taken to its logical conclusion, means that any minority party voter might as well stay home on primary and election day.

In Oregon, with the Blue-bloc of the I-5 corridor in play, it doesn’t take a Herculean stretch to imagine repeated gubernatorial elections in which two Democrats advance, leaving the Republicans, and everybody else, to sit home watching the Ducks and the Beavers while a one-party political machine carries on government without them. In the blogosphere, the top-two system has been debated exhaustively, with possible party hijinks under such systems getting a fair share of cyber-ink.

Scenarios are concocted wherein progressives, voting in mass, with a stated objective of splitting the vote between two popular progressive candidates, could effectively and legally manufacture hegemony in Oregon’s most important races. The shenanigans could work the other way. Since anyone can nominate a candidate in the open primary system, it is possible that one or another party could fund and support an attractive stealth candidate against an opposing party’s frontrunner, thus splitting that party’s vote and ensuring victory for its own.

It may be instructive that Louisiana is taking a step back from the top-two system, with party elections for congressional candidates reinstated for 2008.

People, not politics

It’s not just about the major parties. In the opinion of a broad base of political analysts, the chances of any independent or minor party candidate getting past the primary to a top two slot are nil. In Louisiana, no such candidate has ever made it to the general election. In Oregon, the end of the Pacific Green, Constitution, Libertarian, Working Families, and Peace parties as viable entities would be a foregone conclusion.

Oregon’s American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union President Gary Gillespie targeted another wrinkle in the top-two format: “Top two doesn’t account for the scenario where a candidate wins a super majority in the primary. That candidate will still meet the number two vote-getter in the primary election in yet another election the following November. Taxpayers will get one election for the price of two, a needless waste.”

Gillespie seconded those who worry about minor party candidates, who qualify for their status by either maintaining a membership list of more than 10,250 members or 1 percent of the general election vote. He pointed to the fact that top two “puts all the emphasis on the primary election, which often has a much smaller participation level than the general election.” The Oregon Public Employees Union (OPEU) is urging a no vote for similar reasons.

Notwithstanding these concerns, some Oregon Independents see an open primary as a boon to voter participation. Oregon Independent Party secretary Sal Peralta explains: “Under Oregon’s current system, minor political parties do not appear on the primary ballot. The open primary will give them access for the first time in the history of the state.”

Former Democrat Secretary of State Phil Keisling, another notable name in Oregon politics, supports M-65. “The people opposed to Yes on 65 are the same people who want to control the ballot box by party,” Keisling says. “They said the same things about vote by mail.” Keisling says, “Measure 65 is about people, not parties.”

But the current leadership of the Oregon Democratic Party disagrees. A statement authored by chair Meredith Wood Smith, was unequivocal in its opposition to M-65. “(Measure 65) closes the process more than opens it,” says Smith, who addressed her party’s reasons to vote no come Nov. 4.

One crucial Democrat concern is that wealthier candidates will easily separate themselves from the pack of primary choices, and another involves the potential problem of one- party generals, and a third concern raises the specter of third party extinction.

“It’s more print, more pages, more postage, and more county taxpayer money going toward elections,” Smith’s missive concludes. “A top-two primary limits Oregonians’ choices, raises the cost of elections, and lowers voter participation.”

Seeing red

M-65’s egalitarian-minded adherents claim top two is the answer to partisan stalemate and voter apathy. But a reading of the pre-election tea leaves suggests that their method of achieving that end has left many of Oregon’s political leading lights unconvinced.

Major party politicos accustomed to forming ranks in opposition to one another have found that no on 65 is something they can agree on.

For Republicans, right-leaning Independents and Democrats concerned that 2008 holds the potential for a nationwide balance of power shift toward left-wing ideology, the final question might be: Who are the NAVs? In Oregon, it is unlikely that conservatives would represent anything more than a dollop of such voters.

Of all the possible outcomes put forth by the powers that be, not one of them suggested that an Oregon top-two system would help the conservative cause. But in Oklahoma, Kansas or the Deep South, should a top-two measure ever be adopted, expect to see red all the time.

In Oregon, the measure appears to be an effort by centrists and moderates to wrestle their way into the early fighting to gain advantage for the deciding battle. But major party leaders on both sides know this is unlikely to be the real outcome, or the final outcome.

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