Both of Oregon’s major political parties oppose Measure 90. One minor party, Oregon Working Families Party, supports Measure 90 but the other minor political parties either oppose it or are silent. Though most of Oregon’s political parties do not support Measure 90, the reasons for their positions vary.
Major party opposition
Major political parties are typically zealous about protecting their freedom of association rights and object to allowing voters who are not registered as either Democrats or Republicans to vote in their partisan primaries to nominate each parties’ general election candidates. Major political parties can open their parties to non-affiliated voters and this is done in other states, but experiments with this option in Oregon have been brief and this is not current practice.
Political party endorsements would be listed on the ballot under Measure 90, a feature not seen in the primary system of California or Washington. In other words, party association rights are more respected in Measure 90 than in the primary systems of our neighboring states. Obviously this hasn’t been enough to garner major party support in Oregon, but it is a difference to consider when comparing Measure 90 to primary systems in other states.
A key advantage of the current primary system for the two major political parties is that they are guaranteed a spot on the general election ballot. As long as each party runs a candidate in the May primary, both parties will appear on the general election ballot in November, even in districts dominated by voters registered to just one major party.
For example, in Portland where there are many more registered Democrats, a Republican candidate receiving relatively few votes in the primary still advances to the general election. Similarly, in rural areas of Oregon where there are more Republican voters, a Democrat receiving relatively few votes in the primary still gets on the general election ballot. Currently, this can mean that in districts dominated by one political party there may be two candidates, one D and one R, on the November general election, but those contests are not competitive.
Indeed in some legislative districts with lopsided numbers of voters from one major political party, the other major party may not even field a candidate. Right now, in those situations the primary essentially becomes “the election” and the winner is known in May because only one major party candidate will be on the November ballot. This candidate will win barring the unlikely occurrence of a successful nonaffiliated or minor party general election candidate.
Even when candidates from each major party appear on the current November ballot, the general election contest typically won’t be competitive in districts with lopsided voter registration numbers. This dynamic can be advantageous to political players who can then focus their campaign spending in a relatively small number of competitive districts.
However, this situation can be frustrating to voters not registered with the political party that dominates his or her district. Whether or not this frustration will be effectively addressed by changing the current primary system is a question to consider when deciding on your Measure 90 vote.
One factor in your thinking could be whether or not you see Measure 90 as an effective stand-alone political process change. This is an important consideration since the numbers of legislative districts dominated by one or the other major party are affected by Oregon’s redistricting process that tends to benefit incumbents and doesn’t always make drawing competitive districts a priority. Some people, then, may think that redistricting reform is more important than changing the primary system. Or some may conclude that both redistricting reform and a proposal like Measure 90 are needed and should be adopted at the same time as occurred in California. Our current reality, though, is that Measure 90 is on the ballot as a stand-alone proposal that only changes the primary system.
Minor party opposition
Minor parties are those that have less than five percent of the total number of registered voters. Under Measure 90, minor parties would be spared the expense of running their own nomination process because their candidates would be listed on the May primary ballot along with all other candidates. Minor party candidates may also be less likely to be perceived as a spoiler in an open primary. For most of Oregon’s minor parties, these advantages are outweighed by concerns about retaining their party status and losing access to the general ballot via their own nomination process.
Given the relatively low odds of a minor party candidate being one of the two top primary vote recipients and garnering a spot on a general election ballot, Measure 90’s appeal of providing more voter choices during the primary is evidently not seen by most minor parties as enough of an advantage to offset how most minor parties feel they are adversely affected by limiting voter choice in the general election to only two candidates. Fielding candidates in general election contests is one of the best ways for minor political parties to gain public attention, and most of Oregon’s minor parties are unwilling to give up this platform which they evidently see as a likely result of Measure 90.
Right now minor parties retain their party status and access to the ballot by either of two methods. Understanding these methods, described below, is necessary to examine how minor parties could be affected by Measure 90.
Method 1: Maintaining voter registration numbers of at least one tenth of one percent of the total votes in the last election for governor and running a statewide candidate who gets at least one percent of the general election vote.
Method 2: Maintaining voter registration numbers of at least one half of one percent (0.5%) of the total number of Oregon registered voters. Based on voter registration numbers as of August 2014 the minor ballot access threshold is 10,702 registrants.
[The August 2014 figures are those available on the Secretary of State website in mid-September.]
Under Measure 90, Method 1 would no longer be applicable because how candidates get on the general election ballot would change.
The second method outlined above, however, would remain and become the sole mechanism for major parties to garner ballot access. How well might this sole method under Measure 90 work out for the different minor parties?
In August 2014, voter registration levels of Oregon’s minor parties ranged from a low of 265 American Elect registrants to a high of 101,858 registered with the Independent Party. (Actually the Independent Party is getting close to qualifying as a major political party but that is another story.) The Libertarian Party has the second highest registration level with 16,594 registrants. Two other minor parties, Pacific Green with 10,092 registrants and Working Families with 9,547 registrants, are below the current threshold to maintain their ballot status via Method 2 but are close enough that they could likely obtain the required number of registrants. The remaining parties, Progressive with 1,969 registrants, Constitution with 3,463 registrants, and American Elect with 265 registrants, seem likely to face a more serious challenge to retain their status as minor parties.
However, registering with a minor party could be more attractive under Measure 90 since it would no longer mean being shut out of voting in either the Democratic or Republican partisan primaries. This could make it easier for minor parties to maintain their party status.
Minor party support
The Working Families Party supports Measure 90. Their website indicates they see this proposal as strengthening fusion voting “which allows minor parties to break out of the proverbial ‘spoiler’ role …Measure 90 permits minor parties to make on-the-ballot endorsements of candidates in both the primary and the general elections, giving us the ability to signal in a real way to both the general election and primary voters which candidates will be champions of working people and which ones won’t.”
The focus of the Working Families Party on fusion voting highlights their emphasis on pushing major party candidates to support their issues. It isn’t that the Working Families Party has never fielded their own candidates, but that seems less of a priority compared to other minor political parties. If this emphasis resonates with you, then how Measure 90 affects minor parties could be less troubling than if your interest in minor parties is linked more to wanting candidates that are alternatives to Democrats and Republicans on the ballot.
Spoilers, Splitters, and Ringers
Minor party candidates are often considered spoilers on the current general election ballot, siphoning off votes from one of the two major party candidates can shift election outcomes in ways that are perceived to be unlikely had only two candidates been on the ballot. The spoiler effect, though, may be appreciated by one major party if it believes it benefits from a minor party candidate garnering votes that might otherwise have gone to the other major party candidate.
For example, in Oregon’s 2002 gubernatorial election a Libertarian candidate got 4.6% of the vote. If those votes had gone to the Republican candidate, Kevin Mannix, the Democrat, Ted Kulongoski, would not have won. Of course the Libertarian voters may not have voted at all if a candidate from their party wasn’t on the ballot. And if only given a choice between Mannix and Kulongoski, not all Libertarians might have voted for Mannix. Nevertheless this example illustrates why there are concerns about the minor party spoiler effect.
In a Measure 90 open primary, a minor party candidate would only advance to the general election ballot if he or she garnered significant support. And since there would be only two general election candidates under Measure 90, such a minor party candidate is unlikely to be considered a spoiler. In other words the general election spoiler problem is addressed.
However, one possible result of Measure 90 is that the spoiler effect of minor parties would just shift from the general to the primary election. An open primary field, especially if quite large, would be more vulnerable to vote splitting that result in unexpected candidates getting the most votes and advancing to the general election. Vote splitting could occur unintentionally and just reflect a result unexpected by political prognosticators. Intentional vote splitting could occur if a strategic voting strategy is mounted to advance a weaker to the general election and increase the odds of the candidate preferred by strategic voters winning in the general election.
Ringer candidates carry intentional vote splitting to the next level and have been used in Washington to “game” the open primary/top two general election system. The 2010 primary in Washington’s Senate District 38, a safe Democratic district, illustrates this dynamic. The moderate Democratic incumbent faced a candidate listed as also preferring the Democratic Party and a third candidate listed as preferring the Conservative Party. Labor and progressive groups along with a Democratic consultant spent $250,000 in a two-pronged primary campaign that attacked the moderate incumbent and backed the conservative candidate. Their goal was to push their preferred Democratic candidate into the top two general election with the conservative that their spending made unexpectedly viable and, in effect, a ringer candidate. This primary strategy was successful and, as expected from the beginning, the conservative candidate was defeated in November. The moderate Democratic incumbent was forced out during the primary and replaced in Olympia by a more progressive Democrat.
Oregon’s fusion voting system already provides one alternative to the spoiler effect by currently giving minor parties the option of showing their support for major party candidates if they share the views of the minor party. Application of fusion voting under Measure 90 would allow candidates in both primary and general elections to accept endorsements from major and minor parties. But some minor parties prefer recruiting just one candidate and don’t use the fusion voting option. Under Measure 90 candidates from those minor parties would no longer have the current assurance of a spot on the general election ballot.