Renegade Senators propose overhaul of Oregon primary elections


A plan to overhaul Oregon's primary election system won backing Wednesday from a handful of independent-minded lawmakers, but the proposal remains highly unpopular among many Democrats and Republicans and could have trouble gaining traction during this legislative session.

The proposal is for open primaries, a system that requires all legislative candidates to be placed on primary ballots sent to all voters. The top two vote-getters would advance to the general election, regardless of party.

The current system allows only registered party voters to weigh in during primary elections, leaving roughly 450,000 Oregon voters without a say in picking nominees.

Members of both parties say they are against the proposal because it would allow non-party members to pick their nominee, but backers of the bill counter that the measure would create a more moderate legislature, shifting the focus from partisan politics to candidates and issues.

"Paralyzing partisanship is keeping us from solving Oregon's most critical problems," said Sen. Ben Westlund, D-Bend, one of the bill's sponsors and a former Republican who briefly ran for governor as an independent. "We have a closed primary system that is set up to elect the most democratic Democrats and the most republican Republicans and then we send them all to Salem and wonder why they can't get things done."

But Neel Pender, executive director of the Democratic Party of Oregon, said an open primary would "explode the cost of campaigning" by forcing candidates to spend time stumping for a broad base of voters during the primary.

"The voters have a pretty good barometer of who is going to do a good job of representing them, even if they aren't 100 percent philosophically aligned with their beliefs," Pender said.

Republicans also rebutted the idea that overhauling the current system would create less bickering at the Capitol.

Nick Smith, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Wayne Scott, said that an open primary would do little to change the underlying political forces that shape elections. "In any primary you have your conservative block and your liberal block and those people vote accordingly. I don't see it as a solution for changing the way politics are run," Smith said.

But other lawmakers said it was still unclear how the parties would come down on the issue if there was a vote.

Opponents of the bill have said that an open system would violate their right to freedom of association. In 2004, voters in neighboring Washington passed an open primary law that was shot down by a U.S. district court after state Republican, Democrat and Libertarian parties filed suit. That case has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has yet to indicate whether it will take the case.

Still, the proposal has some support in the Senate. Sens. Ryan Deckert, D-Beaverton, Alan Bates, D-Ashland, Avel Gordly, I-Portland, and Frank Morse, R-Corvallis, are in favor. And the bill also has the support of two former secretaries of state &

Democrat Phil Kiesling and Republican Norma Paulus.

Public polls have shown broad public support for the measure, but an effort last year to get the issue onto November's ballot failed.

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