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Measure 65: Prescription for Electoral Confusion

Measure 65 will destroy most of Oregon's minor political parties, reduce voter choices, confuse the ballots, reward dirty politicking, and likely fail its purpose of electing moderate candidates.

Measure 65 Destroys Most Minor Parties

Today, Oregon's six minor parties can provide good alternatives to Democratic and Republican candidates in the general election. But Measure 65, the "top two primary" on the November ballot, effectively abolishes the Pacific Green, Constitution, Working Families, and Peace parties by removing their legal basis (getting 1% of the vote in the previous statewide general election). Even if a candidate registered in or endorsed by a minor party were somehow to qualify for the general election ballot, that candidate's vote total would not count toward the 1% requirement, because the only votes that count are those of candidates who are nominated by a minor party, and Measure 65 eliminates all party nominations.

Thus, under Measure 65, the 4 smallest minor parties will cease to exist as of November 2010. Each can continue to exist after that only if it has increased its registered membership to about 10,500 ( 1/2 of 1% of all Oregon registered voters). The Constitution and Working families would need to increase their memberships by a factor of 4 or 5. The Peace Party would need to increase by a factor of 100. The Pacific Green Party would need a 25% expansion of membership.

Measure 65 also removes all citiizen-sponsored candidates from the general election ballot, including those supported by tens or even hundreds of thousands of voter signatures.

Remaining Parties Subject to Identify Theft

Under Measure 65, any resident can register as, say, a Democrat (up to the 70th day before the primary election) and immediately file as a candidate, with "Registered: Democratic" next to his name on the ballot. That person might be a Nazi, a Communist, a convicted child molester, you name it. Any political party can have its identity stolen in this way by complete strangers who suddenly take the party's name on the primary ballot.

Measure 65 will thus force minor parties to endorse candidates they don't agree with, just to oppose the strangers on the ballot suddenly displaying their party names. Minor parties currently don't field candidates for every partisan office, rarely nominating more than a few candidates for the 75 races for the Oregon Legislature, for example. To avoid having their party labels hijacked by strangers, each minor party will be forced to endorse major-party candidates in those races, even if those candidates vehemently disagree with the minor party on the issues. This will further erode the identity of each minor party, which is usually based on a coherent, but not "mainstream," political philosophy. Each minor party will be forced to give up its philosophy and defensively endorse major party candidates, to avoid the strong implication of support for the stranger who suddenly hijacks the party's name on the primary ballot.

Each major or minor party will fight the resulting confusion by endorsing a candidate in each race, since Measure 65 also allows party endorsements to appear on the ballot. No party would rationally endorse more than one candidate per race, as that would split the votes of the party faithful and actually harm its endorsed candidates' chances to finish in the "top two" and advance to the general election. If voters were to pay attention and tend to follow these party endorsements, Measure 65 will, in effect, replace the major-party primaries with backroom endorsement deals. I would expect voters to pay great attention to the party endorsements on the ballot, because that will be the only reliable indicator of which candidate is, for example, the "true Democrat" or the "true Republican" and not merely a stranger or, as noted below, a ringer. I would also expect, at least in all statewide races, that the single endorsed Democrat and the single endorsed Republican would be the "top two" in the primary and advance to the general election ballot. Thus, the end result of Measure 65 will be to replace each party's primary with an unknown backroom process for endorsing one candidate in each race who is virtually guaranteed to advance to the general election. Instead of voters deciding who is nominated by each major party, it will be party operatives and high-rollers who decide, with their party endorsement labels on the ballot, which candidates go to the general election.

The "Ringer" Primary

Under Measure 65, primary elections could become a game of "ringers," with political consultants recruiting candidates just to split the votes of the other parties. Republican consultants could recruit people to register and file as "Democratic" candidates, splitting the Democratic vote. Democrats could recruit phony "Republicans." Both of them could recruit phony "Independents" and phony "Libertarians," further increasing the party identity theft.

Expect a confusing ballot, with a dozen or more candidates for each major office who are "Registered" and/or "Endorsed" the surviving parties. In primary elections since 1979 in Louisiana, the only state where the Measure 65 system has operated for a full election cycle, there have been nine, nine, eight, 12, 16, 11, 17, and 12 candidates on the ballot for governor alone.

Not Necessarily Advance Moderate Candidates

Measure 65 will not necessarily achieve the stated goal of its supporters--to advance moderate candidates to the general election. In Louisiana, it has advanced extremists, as the moderate vote is split among several moderate candidates in the primary. Ku Klux Clan leader David Duke has twice advanced to the statewide Louisiana general election. Of the 16 candidates for Governor in 1995, the top two (with 26% and 19% of the vote in the primary) were the two considered most extreme by conventional political observers. The organization FairVote states:

A Republican state legislator, Duke ran a strong second in the 1990 U.S. Senate election and gained a spot in the runoff election in the governor's race in 1991. In that 1991 runoff, he faced Edwin Edwards, a former governor with a history of suspected corruption. Indicating the polarized nature of the choice between Duke and Edwards, a popular bumper sticker in favor of Edwards was: "Vote the Crook: It's Important."

In the 1995 governor's race, sixteen candidates ran in the opening round, including four major candidates who ultimately won at least 18% of the vote. The two most ideologically extreme major candidates were Mike Foster, a conservative Republican who earned Pat Buchanan's endorsement and inherited much of David Duke's constituency, and Cleo Fields, a leading liberal Democrat in the Congressional Black Caucus. They advanced to the runoff election with a combined vote of only 45% of votes casts, with the more centrist vote split among other candidates. Foster ultimately was elected in the runoff election.

A Louisiana-style nonpartisan primary easily can produce these kind of results because in a large field of candidates, the top two vote-getters can have relatively few votes. In a multi-candidate field, this rule tends to favor non-moderate candidates with the strongest core support that can be narrow rather than broad.

Former Governor Edwin Edwards is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence for corruption.

Further reading

By Dan Meek, Independent