Biggest minor party in state faces 'execution' bill

PORTLAND — The Independent Party of Oregon, the state's third-largest party, has pledged a court fight should legislators approve a bill that would strip the party of its name.

The bill, proposed without a sponsor in a state House interim committee, says the use of the word "Independent" in the party's name confuses voters and creates a legislative emergency. A public hearing on the measure is scheduled for Wednesday.

The Independent Party has been controversial since its inception in 2006.

Before a rules change, the phrase "independent" referred to a candidate without a party. Now, it means something else: a growing group of 66,000 led by a pair of progressive Portland lawyers who aren't entirely sure each of their members knows he or she is an Independent Party voter.

The bill, proposed by the House Interim Committee on Rules, would enforce a Jan. 1, 2012, deadline. A failure to meet that deadline means the party couldn't keep its members on its party rolls.

"They've said, change your name or die, but if you change your name before the deadline, you can keep your members," said party co-founder Linda Williams.

A similar bill has been introduced in the Oregon Senate.

Oregon House and Senate leaders did not return calls seeking comment Monday afternoon.

"We have civil rights, as do our members, and we think we have property rights," Williams said. "This is regulatory taking of our name, and our feeling is, it's just more party manipulation.

"They're trying to outlaw a name."

The Independent Party has seen sustained growth, including about 12,000 new members since July. It got its start when the state enacted so-called fusion voting in 2005, meaning candidates can have more than one party next to their names on ballots.

Voters view "independent" candidates favorably, politicians figure, so the "independent party" on the ballot is an advantage, and potentially decisive in a close election. Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, for instance, used it in his 2010 run for office.

But the process of rounding up the voters themselves — and forming a cohesive platform — has been difficult: In a July online primary, party members chose "None of the above" instead of making a general election nomination in 13 state House races, one state Senate race and a congressional race.

The platform itself offered endorsements of both arch-conservative Art Robinson, a strict constitutionalist who rejects Darwinism and health care reform, along with health-care reform champion Kitzhaber.

Williams and Dan Meek, the party's other founder, have expressed skepticism at the idea of a party platform, and say the Independent Party has room for divergent points of view. And, Meek said, no one is harmed if they accidentally register for a party.

"We charge no dues. Membership deprives a voter of no rights or privileges," Meek said. "Instead, it has provided the opportunity to vote in the Independent Party of Oregon Internet primary."

Of course, if the party should continue to grow, it would eventually receive state funding for its election activities. To meet that metric under Oregon law would require registrants equal to 1 percent of the total voters in the last general election — that is, about 100,000 people.

Meek said he's not worried about the Independent Party achieving major-party status.

First, the party will prepare to challenge the latest threat to its survival.

"They're talking about our execution. The first step is to test this in a court, which we fully expect to do," Williams said. "We fully expect that would be successful."

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