By Taylor W. Anderson

The Bulletin

SALEM — The Independent Party of Oregon became the state’s newest major political party alongside Democrats and Republicans on Monday and is already generating buzz with at least one potential statewide candidate.

The announcement that the party was certified as the state’s new major party came Monday from Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins after the party’s membership ballooned since its founding in 2007. Voter registration with the two major parties has slowed and many voters have remained unaffiliated with any political party.

The Independent Party will no longer have to pay for its own primary election that it held in the past over the Internet, and it now has less than a month before a September deadline to find candidates willing to run for office under its banner in 2016.

“I will say, it really wasn’t that gratifying to me until I got a call this morning from the secretary of state. It was just nice to hear them say, ‘Congratulations, you’ve made it,’” said Sal Peralta, secretary and one of three main leaders of the Independent Party.

In order to run in a primary election under state law, a candidate must be a member of the political party 250 days before the primary election, or Sept. 10, 2015.

While that’s not much time for party leaders to attract candidates willing to run as Independent, a party with 109,363 members as of Monday, compared with 644,000 Republicans and 815,000 Democrats, candidates are already emerging.

Chris Telfer, a Bend certified public accountant, Oregon Lottery commissioner and former state senator and Bend city councilor, told The Bulletin on Monday she’s considering running for state treasurer as an Independent. She served as a Republican in the Senate and ran unsuccessfully for treasurer in a special election in 2010 as a Republican, but she registered as an Independent a few weeks ago.

“I have not made up my mind, but I am contemplating it,” Telfer said. The Independent Party “plus the (unaffiliated voters) make up a third of the voters in Oregon. That means a third of the voters in the state aren’t represented in the Legislature (or) any of the statewide offices. That’s a large number of people.”

“The treasury should be a place where the concentration is not political,” she said. “Keep politics out of it.”

Another 530,000 Oregonians don’t belong to any party, and about 65,000 belong to minor parties. Together with the Independent Party, the voter blocs make up just shy of 33 percent of all voters in Oregon.

The Independent Party will seek to field eight to 10 legislative candidates in tight races for November 2016.

Confusing name?

Leaders from both the Republican and Democratic parties persistently ask Independent leaders whether they think their voters know they belong to a political party and aren’t actually independent from political parties.

“On the selection of your name, have you run into any confusion about people who want to register as an independent versus Independent Party” member? Republican Rep. Vic Gilliam asked during a House Rules hearing on major parties in late June.

“The last thing that the IPO wants are members who don’t want to be members of the Independent Party,” Independent Party of Oregon Co-Chair Dan Meek said. “That just adds to the expense of running the party.”

He said the voter registration form gives an option of “not a member of a political party” along with the names of all major and minor parties.

Meek said party leaders also email updates to registered members, and members are invited to vote in the party’s primary elections.

The day after the June House Rules hearing on major political parties, the state Democratic and Republican parties released results of a joint poll and called into question the number of people who knew that as members of the Independent Party they had joined a political party.

Fifty-two percent of registered Independents polled knew they belonged to the party, while 24 percent thought they were unaffiliated, according to the results.

“If we’re going to have major parties, we need to make sure their members actually intended to join, and that they are engaged and involved in democratic processes,” Democratic Party Chair Frank Dixon said.

Very few Independent Party members voted in the Internet primary, in which the party selects which legislative and statewide candidates to endorse under the state’s fusion voting, cross-nomination system.

Immediate impact

The Independent Party announced its plans to open its primary election to any unaffiliated voter interested in receiving a ballot, granting access to about a third of all registered voters to the election where a majority of Oregon’s legislative races are decided.

The two groups will account for a group of voters that is about 4,000 shy of the total number of Oregon Republican voters, according to the most recent data from the secretary of state.

But it’s likely only a small number of unaffiliated voters will participate in an open primary, based on the major parties’ attempts to open their primary election systems in the past. Republicans opened their primary in 1992 and 2012, and Democrats did so in 1998 and 2000.

The Independent Party’s move to an open primary may force Republicans and Democrats to consider doing the same in the near future, as the number of unaffiliated voters in Oregon is growing faster than any political party and now stands at more than half a million. The new automatic voter registration law will also add an estimated 300,000 voters next year, which could make unaffiliated voters the biggest bloc in the state.

Staying major

Party leaders believe it may be difficult to maintain major party status when the next secretary of state certifies parties after the 2016 election. That’s when the estimated 300,000 new voters will be registered automatically through the state’s pioneering universal voter registration law.

Unless the Legislature changes the laws affecting major and minor party certification between now and 2018, the Independent Party will still have to meet the 5 percent threshold. The party will need to maintain at least 5 percent of registered voters after each election, which may be tough in 2017. If 300,000 voters are added, the party would need at least 15,000 more members in a year.

“Once (automatic voter registration) kicks in, it almost certainly kicks us back to minor party status,” Peralta said last month.

— Reporter: 406-589-4347,