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A nonpartisan Oregon?

Byline: The Register-Guard

The Oregon Senate has approved a bill abolishing party labels in Oregon elections. The bill is expected to die in the House, but it's remarkable that 20 senators voted to get rid of the system that put them where they are.

Senators who supported Senate Bill 161 said partisanship has hurt the Legislature's reputation, and maybe it has. But party identification persists even in nonpartisan positions - everyone knows that Labor Commissioner Dan Gardner is a Democrat, just as surely as they knew that his predecessor, Jack Roberts, was a Republican, even though the position is nonpartisan.

The real problem addressed by SB 161 is that most legislators are elected in single-party districts. Republicans don't have much of a chance in legislative districts centered in Portland, Eugene and a few other blue zones. Most of the rest of the state's legislative districts are red-hot Republican territory. Outside of a few swing districts, legislative contests are settled in the primary election.

This does not encourage partisanship so much as ideological purity. Republican candidates can't win their party's nomination without establishing their anti-tax, social conservative credentials. Democratic candidates can't get past the primary without genuflecting to labor, pro-choice and environmental constituencies. Republicans who go wobbly on taxes, or Democrats who stray from the party line on abortion, can expect primary opposition.

As of March, 39 percent of Oregon's voters were registered as Democrats and 36 percent as Republicans. Just more than half of each party's members voted in Oregon's 2004 primary election.

Each party's nominees were chosen by fewer than 20 percent of the state's registered voters in May, and in most districts those nominees are shoo-ins in November. These small segments of the electorate - the most involved and committed segments - enforce partisan ortho- doxy.

SB 161 would change all that. Primary election ballots would list all candidates, and all voters would choose among them. The top two finishers would contend in the general election, unless one won more than 50 percent of the primary vote.

The proposal would eliminate partisan races for the Legislature, and also for the offices of governor, secretary of state, treasurer and attorney general. Nebraska is currently the only state with a nonpartisan legislature; no state elects a nonpartisan governor.

Former Secretary of State Phil Keisling is promoting a variant of the SB 161 system: Candidates would retain their party labels but would all appear on the same primary election ballot. Voters of all parties or none would receive the same primary election ballot. The top two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, would compete in the general election.

Both SB 161 and Keisling's version of a Louisiana-style primary would induce candidates to begin their campaigns by seeking all voters' support rather than catering to one party's most active members. Primary election participation by the one in four registered Oregon voters who are not affiliated with any major party would rise from its current low level of 27 percent, because they would no longer be excluded from choosing candidates for the general election. Candidates, and Oregon politics, would be pulled toward the political center, rather than being pushed toward the extremes by the polarizing, partisan primary process.

At least, that's the theory. In practice, as can be seen in nonpartisan city and county races, liberal districts elect liberals and conservative districts elect conservatives. A nonpartisan system would have the greatest effect in statewide races, where third-party spoilers would be eliminated, and in the half-dozen legislative districts where neither political party enjoys a clear advantage.

The existing system clearly works well for everyone currently in the Legislature. SB 161 passed the Senate with the support of 14 Democrats and six Republicans, but only through a parliamentary maneuver that evaded the opposition of the chamber's Democratic leadership. Its prospects in the House are dim.

It's likely that a nonpartisan system could come into being only through a citizen initiative. Such a proposal could expect the opposition of both major parties, but it would probably prove popular with voters.
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Title Annotation:Editorials; State Legislature is toying with the idea
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jun 6, 2005
Words:670
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