By Taylor W. Anderson

The Bulletin

The ballot measure that would allow everyone to vote in Oregon’s primary elections has put a new focus on whether the process would improve the state’s progressive fusion voting system.

Oregon is one of 10 states that allows candidates to list endorsements of multiple parties on the ballot through fusion voting. The process can tip elections against a candidate who is endorsed by only one major party toward a major party candidate who is also endorsed by third parties.

It’s a practice that was common in the 19th century before most states banned it; Oregon enacted it in 2009. Some minor party leaders now say it gives third parties a way to influence policy without unseating politicians and say Ballot Measure 90 would strengthen the fusion voting process.

“Fusion voting gives minor parties a path to be involved in a meaningful way that can actually impact election outcomes without having to go down the route of being the spoiler party as the only option,” said Steve Hughes, director of Oregon’s Working Families Party.

That’s what happened in Connecticut’s gubernatorial race in 2010, when Republican Tom Foley lost to Democrat Dannel Malloy, who was also endorsed by the Working Families Party. Malloy won by fewer than 7,000 votes.

Ballot Measure 90 would create what’s called a top-two primary system in Oregon. It would end the current method in which the state sends primary ballots only to those registered with the Republican and Democratic parties, locking out more than 600,000 registered voters who aren’t with the two main parties.

Under a top-two system, Progressive, Working Families, Pacific Green and other minor party candidates would face slim odds of making the general election ballot if facing off against two or more major party candidates. Currently, minor party candidates can get on the general election ballot by winning support at a convention or via another nomination process; nonaffiliated candidates get on it by holding a convention or gathering signatures on a petition.

Hughes said that the greater difficulty of getting on the general election ballot under the top-two system would, in part, make cross-nominations more important.

A moderate Democrat facing a liberal who also has the Progressive and Green Party nominations may appeal to a wider group of voters than one who has no other endorsement.

But the campaign against the measure, which calls itself Protect Our Vote and is close with the Democratic Party of Oregon, says most third parties such as the Libertarian and Progressive parties don’t use the cross-nomination process as the Working Families and Independent parties do.

“That is because the goal of groups like the Progressive Party or the Libertarian Party is to communicate a distinct and separate message from the major parties, which is why every other minor party opposes Measure 90,” said Sara Logue, spokeswoman for Protect Our Vote.

Logue also said third party candidates won’t stand a chance of moving to the general election over major party candidates and therefore voters’ voices would be limited.

“To have our minor parties invited into our conversations and involved, I think, is a good thing for all of us,” Logue said.

She added there’s a better opportunity to get minor party voices into the wider conversation under the current system where they are listed on the general election ballot and sometimes invited to debates.

The Independent Party of Oregon polled about 300 of its nearly 102,000 members and found 72 percent support a top-two primary system, so the party will endorse the measure.

But the party’s leaders are starkly split on the measure, with co-chairman Dan Meek opposed and Secretary Sal Peralta in favor.

Peralta says the new system, which is used in Washington and California, would keep the fusion system in place while giving Independent candidates their first legitimate chance at taking office.

“I’d say the reason the public employee unions (are opposed) is that it’s going to shake up the status quo,” Peralta said. “The people who are in control right now don’t want to see the status quo shaken up.”

The process would make what are now considered “safe” seats for Republicans and Democrats, a majority of legislative seats in Oregon, more vulnerable to voters, Peralta said.

That’s because more candidates could challenge and primary elections would be opened up to an increasing number of voters choosing not to register as a Republican or Democrat.

The biggest bloc of voters that would be allowed to vote in primaries under top-two are the nearly 504,000 voters not registered to a party.

Meek, on the other hand, strongly opposes the measure. He released a 16-page report breaking down what he says are threats to minor and major parties in Oregon.

“Measure 90 would destroy the value of party labels on the ballot, which research shows is the centrally important piece of information for most voters,” Meek wrote in his report. He called the process of allowing anyone to jump on the primary ballot under any party’s label “party identity theft.”

Meek also says top-two could threaten any minor party that doesn’t maintain 0.5 percent of all registered Oregon voters or be dissolved under the state’s laws. That would threaten five of the state’s seven minor parties.

In Washington, similar groups opposed the top-two system and dislike it now that it’s in place because it weakens the control mainstream political parties have on candidates.

“They say top-two is going to help get rid of gridlock in the Legislature. We had (gridlock) in the past, and it certainly didn’t get rid of that,” said Jaxon Ravens, director of the Washington Democratic Party.

— Reporter: 406-589-4347,

tanderson@bendbulletin.com

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