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Revitalizing the primary.

Byline: The Register-Guard

Oregon's primary election system, the first of its kind in the nation, celebrated its 100th birthday last month, but many voters did not attend the party. Only voters who are registered as Democrats or Republicans could vote for their parties' nominees in partisan contests, which included contests for the state Legislature, statewide offices, Congress and president. Restricting participation in this manner affects both the process and the result in ways that ought to be examined at least once a century.

Such an examination will occur, because both California and Washington state are considering changes in their primary elections that will attract notice in Oregon.

In November, Californians will vote on an initiative that would create a "top-two finishers" primary - everyone gets the same ballot, and the two candidates who win the most votes, regardless of their party, compete in the November general election. Washington Gov. Gary Locke vetoed a similar plan for his state, but a top-two system may also reach the ballot by initiative.

In Oregon, former Secretary of State Phil Keisling is pushing for a top-two system. The concept should be familiar to most Oregonians, because many city councilors and county commissioners are elected in a primary election free-for-all, with a November runoff between the two leading vote-getters. The difference is that candidates for state and federal offices would retain their party labels - though state Sen. Bob Ringo, D-Beaverton, and others are exploring the possibility of making the Oregon Legislature a nonpartisan body.

Promoters of a top-two system say that it addresses two problems: declining voter participation and increased political polarization. They point to the gubernatorial recall election in California as an example of what can happen when everyone is invited to vote, regardless of party affiliation.

California's election last October attracted a 61 percent turnout. After voting to recall Gov. Gray Davis, voters chose from among 135 candidates of every conceivable political stripe, and elected Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger with 48.4 percent of the vote. Schwarzenegger fails GOP litmus tests on abortion, gun control and gay rights, and would have had trouble winning a normal Republican primary. Yet he's becoming one of the most popular governors in California history.

Schwarzenegger won't be run- ning for the Oregon Legislature, state treasurer, Congress or - unless the U.S. Constitution is amended - president. But Keisling and others hope to add a November runoff to the California-style election and bring its benefits north. They point out that 25 percent of Oregon voters are unaffiliated with either major party, double the percentage of two decades ago. Allowing those voters to help choose candidates in all races on the ballot would give more people reasons to vote, and would broaden the base of democratic decision-making.

Independents aren't the only voters who would gain. Most legislative and congressional districts are safely under the control of one or the other major party. A Republican in Eugene doesn't have a voice in the Democratic primary, where as a practical matter her next legislator will be chosen. A Democrat in many parts of rural Oregon can't throw his support to a moderate in a Republican legislative primary.

Allowing all voters to participate through a top-two system would have a leavening effect on primary races. In Oregon's current closed primary, nominees are chosen by the most motivated members of the major parties. After reaching toward the ideological extremes to win their parties' nomination in the primary election, candidates scurry back to the political center in the general election campaign.

Conservative Democrats or liberal Republicans don't have much chance of winning the nomination, even though they might fare best in the general election. A top-two primary might reduce the polarization that is a product of the current system, making it easier to achieve consensus in the Oregon Legislature and other institutions.

A top-two system would undoubtedly weaken the political parties. Party leaders say unaffiliated voters are not disenfranchised, but have freely chosen not to become party members. They further claim that any voters interested in exerting a moderating influence on either party can join and cast their votes accordingly. What's more, Oregon's current system has delivered good leadership and bad over the past century, which suggests that any problems lie not with the system but with the people involved in it.

Yet the experiment in California, and perhaps Washington, with a top-two system will be worth studying. Polls suggest that the idea is popular with a majority of voters. It seems likely that it would be popular in Oregon, too.
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Title Annotation:Editorials; Interest growing in 'top-two' system
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jun 6, 2004
Words:754
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