A Left and Right Primary

It’s apparent the majority of the Democratic and Republican operatives and donor base don’t like election reform. Whether it’s ranked choice voting, open primaries with top two, or reforming the election laws that would broaden the ability of minor party and non affiliated candidates to compete, there’s no reform that the political elite will widely embrace.

But there is a growing problem with our election rules and structures. Particularly in close primary states like Oregon. And some recent “reforms” like automatic voter registration as structured in Oregon have actually decreased, as a percentage of all voters, the percent of registered voters eligible to participate in our primary election, which in today’s gerrymandered world 90% of all legislative seats are selected. In those districts as few as 11% of all registered voters elect their state representative.

Secretary of State Dennis Richardson addressed this problem by proposing a bill this legislature that would have created a primary for non affiliated voters for partisan offices. Unfortunately, when Mr. Richardson passed away, his replacement thought so little of this independent primary idea that she didn’t even bother to send a representative to the Senate committee hearing to explain the bill.

Is there any reform that Democratic and Republican gatekeepers would consider? One that would preserve the influence of the Democratic and Republican elite, enfranchise non affiliated voters, make sure that voters wouldn’t “cross over” to vote for a weak opposing candidate, and maybe even find a role for minor parties?

A Left / Right Primary: Political researchers often claim that there are no truly independent voters, just secret partisans. While 41% of all voters identify as independents, most do lean towards the Republican or Democratic Parties. Because what’s a rational but thirsty person going to do when offered a Coke or a Pepsi? Order water?

But if it’s true that there are few true independents why in Oregon, where we have closed primary elections, should those secret Democrats and Republicans be deprived of selecting the left or right leaning finalist simply because they have chosen not to join a political party? Should the price of your vote require you to register with a private political corporation?

Two party system defenders really believe that the two party system is superior because it forces alliances and consensus . If so, then rather than Democratic and Republican primary ballots let’s have left and right primary ballots. A left / right primary would only require voters to select a left leaning or right leaning ballot. If would not require party affiliation. Candidates could file for the left or right nomination and their party affiliation could be listed on the ballot, along with any party endorsements they received.

If the idea of the two party system is really a way to reach wide consensus and coalition building, a left / right primary would achieve greater consensus and coalition building than a closed primary system because you’d have substantially more people within your left or right coalition selecting candidates. No fear of tactical crossover voting. No requirement for a voter to join a political party in order to help select a realistic finalist in the November election.

The Democratic and Republican Parties could still endorse their preferred candidate for the primary in any way they wanted, and while it’s true that the vast majority of primary winners would still be from the major parties, candidates from third parties such as the Greens or Libertarians could run as a show of strength within the left or right coalition. And their member wouldn’t feel like they were wasting their votes, they’d feel like they were being heard.

A political party could opt out of the left / right primary and conduct their own nomination process, thus preserving their autonomy. If a party opted out, then none of their members could be a candidate for the left or right nomination. This would have the effect of encouraging those minor parties to elect between joining the left or right coalition or going it alone.

We are in an age of political change. A more open and inclusive voting system will make change more responsive to where the people want to go. I don’t know what those changes will or should be or how fast they should be made, but I fear the fact that the decisions in our state are now being made by an ever decreasing circle of well connected, well healed powerful elite who fear change or will use their undemocratic power take us where they- but not the people- believe we should go.

Empowering voters means changes will be more widely supported and lead to a more stable, satisfied and less tumultuous society. Which in turn should lead to more honor and reverence for leaders who successfully navigate these difficult times.

One of the biggest hurdles I foresee could be ego. I suspect that the first reaction of many will be to scoff at the idea of renaming primaries. But if you think about the ideal of the two party system, then the left / right primary delivers much more of the “two party system” promise than our current closed party primaries.

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