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Debate open primary?

Byline: The Register-Guard

Between them, Norma Paulus and Phil Keisling served as Oregon's chief elections officer for 17 years. Now the two former secretaries of state, a Republican and a Democrat, are promoting fundamental changes in the process they once oversaw.

They want to take primary elections away from the political parties, and give them to the voters. Their plan deserves a place on next year's ballot.

Paulus and Keisling advocate an open primary - more open than any that exists in the country today. All candidates would appear on a single ballot in May. Every voter, regardless of party registration, would receive the same ballot. The top two vote-getters, regardless of party, would move on to the general election in November. The only exception would be presidential primaries, in which voters technically choose delegates to national nominating conventions.

Increasing numbers of Oregon voters choose not to register as members of any political party. Among voters under the age of 25, a plurality are neither Democrats nor Republicans. These voters are excluded from participating in primary elections, except for nonpartisan races and ballot measures.

The effect on turnout is telling. In Oregon's 2004 primary election, 54 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans voted, but only 26 percent of non-affiliated voters cast ballots. In the 2004 general election, in which all voters were able to vote in all contests, the turnout by non-affiliated voters was 79 percent, not far behind the Democrats' 89 percent and the Republicans' 90 percent.

Many contests are effectively decided in the primary election. In most urban legislative districts, the winner of the Democratic nomination is virtually assured of winning in the fall; the same goes for Republicans in rural districts. A Democrat in Roseburg, a Republican in Eugene and a non-affiliated voter nearly anywhere has no real voice in filling legislative seats and some other offices. Yet everyone pays for the conduct of party primaries.

An open primary would allow universal participation. Universal participation, Paulus and Keisling argue, would result in more representative leadership. General elections, they say, would cease to be showdowns between two nominees chosen by party activists. Instead, the runoff in the fall would feature the candidates who had shown an ability to attract broad support. The result, Paulus and Keisling predict, would be more moderation and greater loyalty to the voters than to the parties.

Neither major party supports the open primary proposal, and they may be able to offer persuasive arguments against it.

Paulus, however, sees the open primary as an opportunity to extend Oregon's record of innovation in voting - a record that includes the initiative and referendum, direct voting for U.S. Senate nominees, mail-in voter registration and voting by mail.

Oregonians should be given a chance to decide whether the open primary belongs on that list, and should sign initiative petitions to place it on next year's ballot.
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Title Annotation:Editorials; New system would enfranchise more voters
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Dec 4, 2005
Words:480
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