By Knute Buehler
Unless you were paying very close attention, you probably missed the historic moment that transpired this primary election. A new major political party held its first-ever primary in Oregon. Growing in membership and popularity over the past decade, the Independent Party of Oregon qualified as a major party, a status previously held only by the Republican and Democratic parties.
Over 30 percent of voters in Oregon are rejecting the traditional two-party system, since narrow partisan labels do not resonate with their values, thoughts and ideas. The problem is these voters are unjustly punished once they step outside of the typical two-party structure: unless you are a Republican or Democrat, you have almost no candidates to vote for in the primary. Oregon’s elections should be both inclusive and transparent, giving everyone equal opportunity to participate. We have made progress — considering the Independent Party’s new status — but we can do more.
Though the Independent Party’s transition to major party status is historic, the process itself was not without flaws. State election laws are designed to reinforce the two-party system, not to challenge it. I believe we may need to revisit some of those laws to ensure that all Oregon voters and candidates have the same rights to fully participate in our democracy.
For example, under the current system, more than 30 state legislative candidates seeking the Independent Party’s nomination were not allowed to have their names printed on the party’s primary ballot because of state laws that require candidates to be a member of a political party for more than 250 days before the primary election. They were eligible to run but not eligible to be listed. This resulted in a large number of write-in races that were confusing to voters and expensive to count by hand.
An easy way to fix this problem is to give parties the flexibility to determine who can run and who can vote in their primary election. Currently, the state dictates most of the election rules — leaving the parties with limited options and the process prone to manipulation by insiders. All parties should have more ability to set effective processes and procedures for their membership and who qualifies as a candidate. This means that potentially any candidate could seek the IPO nomination instead of being limited to only those registered in the party or as a write-in candidate.
Going one step further, Oregon should offer a Fusion Primary and give all unaffiliated voters the option of participating. Candidates, regardless of party affiliation, would choose if they want to seek the nomination, and then all unaffiliated voters would be sent a ballot with the names of participating candidates. Under this system, every voter has a voice and real opportunity to participate in the primary. With these two changes you would not have to register as a Republican or Democrat to be able to cast a meaningful vote.
I am very proud to have earned the nomination of Independent voters in Bend during 2014 when I first ran for state representative, and again for my reelection campaign this year. It is a privilege to represent all the people of Bend — not just one group, ideology or party. These simple changes will make primary election voting easier, more inclusive, and impactful. More people engaging in the democratic process and greater diversity of ideas will result in a more balanced, thoughtful and effective state government.