Nonpartisan Blanket Primary in Oregon

By: Matthew Hubbard

In 2014, Oregonians voted on Ballot Measure 90, which aimed to overhaul the state’s primary election system by establishing a nonpartisan blanket primary. A form of open primary, a nonpartisan blanket primary system requires all candidates for a political office to participate in a single primary. The top two vote getters from this primary advance to the general election, regardless of their stated party affiliation.

The nonpartisan blanket primary is a relatively modern electoral procedure, touted by its proponents as a “rebellion against party-centric politics.” Its stated purpose is to reduce political polarization, which it theoretically achieves by removing party primaries that encourage ideological purity and force candidates to pander to the party base. Instead, candidates in a nonpartisan blanket primary are forced to reach the broad spectrum of voters in order to have a chance of finishing in the top two. As a result, heavily polarized candidates who struggle to gain independent/bipartisan support will be prevented from advancing. Opponents contend, however, that the system prevents minority parties and grassroots movements from gaining traction because they will be unable garner the requisite support to enter the general election in the absence of a dedicated primary.

Three states currently use a nonpartisan blanket primary system: Louisiana, California, and Washington. In 2008, it was challenged in the case of Washington State Grange v. Washington State Republican Party as a violation of the freedom of association under the First and Fourteenth Amendments because political parties could not control which candidates they endorsed. Striking a blow to party influence, the Supreme Court disagreed, reasoning that the process precludes party endorsement altogether by allowing candidates to list only party affiliation.

There have been several efforts to adopt such a system in Oregon over recent years, through legislation in 2007 and ballot measure in 2008, both of which failed to gain traction. The 2014 attempt, Ballot Measure 90, was substantially the same in substance but this time included some major financial clout. Two out-of-state billionaires, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and hedge fund manager John Arnold, pumped $5 million into the Measure 90 campaign as part of a nationwide goal to create a more neutral political center. On the other side, public employee unions opposed to completely changing the election system largely bankrolled the significantly less expensive opposition campaign. In the end, Measure 90 was resoundingly defeated 68.23% to 31.77%.

Ballot Measure 90’s failure likely stems from a combination of several sources. The system has only existed in Washington and California for a few election cycles and therefore has not yet developed a proven track record. Additionally, the system’s benefits can be difficult to explain concisely to voters and the heavy presence of outside financing may have distorted the merits of the issues with national political rhetoric.

The history of attempts to reform Oregon’s primary system indicates, however, that the nonpartisan blanket primary may not be dead. One of the main reasons that such a system may continue to be attractive in Oregon is that voter registration statistics indicate more and more voters registering with a minor party or registering as unaffiliated altogether. As of September 2015 822,423 voters were registered as Democrats, 644,587 voters were registered as Republicans, and 641,611 voters were registered as independents (110,203) or non-affiliated (531,408).

The extremely large number of voters who do not identify with either major party reflects a highly moderate electorate that is underrepresented by the current closed primary system. Non-affiliated voters in particular are not even eligible to vote in the current partisan primaries. It is unclear whether nonpartisan blanket primaries have a future in Oregon, but voters have likely yet to see the end of this battle.

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