Oregon Primary Election Basics

Why are there primary elections?
The purpose of a primary election is to select candidates for the general election. In Oregon primary elections occur in May and the general election is in November. Nonpartisan primaries are used for elected positions that don’t involve any political party labeling. Partisan primaries are the nomination process for the two major political parties. 

Oregon’s current primary system
What follows may be too basic for you, but can come in handy to help answer questions you may get from friends and family. When thinking about primary elections it helps to remember that in Oregon when you register to vote you are given the option of affiliating with a major party (Democratic or Republican) or with one of our state’s seven minor parties. Or you can be what is called a non-affiliated voter and not align yourself with any political party.

Primary candidates in nonpartisan races can be from any political party or not affiliated with any party. Many local government elections are nonpartisan contests and any voter, regardless of their party affiliation, can vote. Only one Oregon statewide office, head of the Bureau of Labor and Industries, is elected on a nonpartisan basis. On ballots for nonpartisan contests candidate are listed without any party affiliation. The purpose of nonpartisan primaries is to identify the two candidates that garner the most votes and advance to the general election. 

Oregon’s partisan races are the legislative contests in 60 House districts and 30 Senate districts and the statewide elections of Oregon’s Governor, Secretary of State, State Treasurer, and Attorney General. Congressional and U.S. Senate elections are also partisan. For these offices, partisan primary elections are used by the two major political parties, Democratic and Republican, to select their respective party’s candidate for the general election. 

In Oregon right now, all registered voters are eligible to vote in nonpartisan primaries, but only those registered with one of the two major political parties are eligible to vote in the partisan primaries. Candidates for nonpartisan offices and ballot measures will be listed on the ballots sent to all registered voters. Only those items will be on your ballot if you are affiliated with a minor party or not affiliated with any party. If you are registered as a Republican, however, your ballot will also list candidates vying for the Republican nomination for partisan races. If you are a Democrat, your ballot will also list candidates seeking the Democratic Party nomination in partisan contests.  Actually then there are two partisan primaries – one for those registered as Democrats and one for Republican voters. And if both parties have candidates on the primary ballot in May, a Democrat and a Republican are both currently guaranteed spots on the November general election ballot.

Who came up with the current system and who pays?
Partisan primaries were a progressive era reform in the early 1900s designed to take candidate nominations away from political party bosses making decisions in smoke-filled back rooms. Given the role of political parties in national and state politics it shouldn’t be a big surprise that partisan primaries are run and paid for by local governments that also run nonpartisan and ballot measure elections. It also shouldn’t be a surprise that it might rankle minor parties that must follow state rules but then have to pay for their own procedures to select their general election nominees for partisan races. If this step is taken, though, minor party candidates are now currently guaranteed a spot on the general election ballot in November.

Changing voter registration patterns
One reason to review the current primary system and how candidates get on the general election ballot is that party registration patterns have changed over time. The numbers of voters registered as non-affiliated more than doubled from 10.9% in Oregon’s 1990 general election to 23.5% in August of 2014. Minor party registration in August 2014 comprised 7.7% of Oregon’s registered voters. This means that, as of this summer, 668,469 registrants or 31.2% of registered voters are not eligible to vote in partisan primaries. Depending on your view of political parties this could seem just fine or could be a major concern. 

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