After qualifying as Oregon’s third major party for the 2016 and 2018 elections, The Independent Party will be relegated from major party to minor party for the 2020 elections.
What does this mean strategically, politically and legally for the Independent Party?
How a Minor Party becomes a Major Party. Simply put, a recognized political party becomes a major party when its membership is equal to at least 5% of all registered voters.
The IPO was formed in 2007 and was a recognized minor party until August 2015 when it qualified as a major political party when its membership totaled 109,681 out of Oregon’s 2,167,301 total voters. Just over 5% of all Oregon voters. That meant that for the 2016 election, the IPO was a major party.
A key Difference in major and minor political parties: Oregon law treats major political parties and minor political parties differently.
An important difference is in how parties can nominate candidates. Minor political parties are largely free to set internal rules for their nomination process. Many have a nominating caucus or some body that vets all potential candidates and names their party nominee. In the past as a minor party the IPO held online elections by members to determine party nominees.
Major political parties must nominate their candidates through the May public primary. A major party can’t exclude anyone who qualifies from filing to be a candidate in the primary, and a run in candidate can win a nomination.
How a Major Party becomes a Minor Party. The IPO was destined to be relegated back to minor party status when Oregon passed Automatic Voter Registration. (AVR). AVR started in 2016 and provides that anyone who has contact with Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles be checked against voter registration rolls, and if the person wasn’t registered to vote, they’d be automatically registered as voters (if they were US citizens and not otherwise disqualified from voting). Which is great for democracy. But unlike most other States that enacted AVR, Oregon’s process didn’t let people know they could register with a political party until later. Statistics show that only about 10% of “motor voters” join a party later. So while total voter registrations swelled with AVR, party membership in all political parties stagnated. Even though the IPO continued to grow, IPO membership quickly fell below 5% as non affiliated voters grew tremendously.
In 2017, at the request of the IPO and the Working Family Party, the Oregon Legislature passed a “Motor Voter fix”. Rather than calculating the 5% threshold based on current total Oregon voters, it made the calculation based on the number of voters as of August, 2015, before AVR went into effect. The fix was for the 2018 election only, and a way to work on addressing this unanticipated fallout from AVR.
In the 2019 session, then Secretary of State Dennis Richardson worked with the political parties to update and reform some of Oregon’s election laws. Particularly in regards to primary elections. The proposed bill – SB 224 – would have allowed any political party in Oregon to opt into the May primary. So other minor parties such as the Libertarian or Progressive Party could also access taxpayer funded elections as a nominating tool. That bill was gutted and amended. A section was added at the last minute that would have again used the 2015 registration totals to determine whether a party met the major party threshold for the 2020 elections. Since the IPO had even more members than it did in 2015, it would remain a major party under SB 224. The IPO didn’t support the bill – and in fact testified against the IPO major party savings clause – but it passed regardless. It appeared that the IPO would remain a major party for the 2020 elections.
But then I noticed something. The determination for major party status for the 2020 elections is made August 18th , 2019, and SB 224 was passed in late June, but did not have an emergency clause. The bill wouldn’t go into effect until 91 days after it was signed, which would be September 29, 2019, well after the major party determination is made. For the 2020 election then major party determination will be made on August 19, 2019 under the law as it stands today, using current total voter registrations rather than the number from August, 2015.
As of June there are 2,769,844 registered voters and the IPO has 124,560 members. Only 4.5% of all registered voters. It would need to increase membership by 15,000 members by August 19, 2019 to qualify as a major party for 2020. That isn’t going to happen. The IPO will be a minor party for the 2020 election.
What’s best? Major or Minor Party status. The IPO was excited to be a major party in 2016. It raised its profile, but it also raised expectations. In 2015 many people in Oregon and nationally were excited about the possibility of a more moderate third party. But reality set in soon enough.
There were several big problems with taking a minor party to major party.
Base of support. The Democrats have financial and grass roots support from environmentalists, labor, LBGTQ, NARAL and other factions. The Republicans have financial support from business and the natural resource industry (labor and owners), and grass roots and financial support from the anti abortion, gun, and now anti vaccine factions.
If you see a pattern, so did we. The current major political parties have assembled their own donor and hardcore grass roots unyielding base and there’s not much overlap anymore between the two parties. In fact, political operatives and even donors to some extent are told to pick a side and stick with it. But they do have some things in common.
Their donor bases are special monied interests who have an interest in government spending and who pays taxes. Their grass roots bases have unyielding positions on social issues.
The IPO on the other hand is focused in principled compromise to achieve good widely supported public policy goals, consumer protection, and democracy reform that empowers voters. There is no natural donor base for those principles. As to a grass roots base, while many voters say that they left the Democratic or Republican Party because they are “independent” or the party left them and claim to be waiting for another option, these voters won’t by and large donate money or invest time in helping a third party candidate. They are distrustful and / or worn out by our political system and have a prove it to me attitude. The problem of course is that you can’t prove viability when your natural base is reluctant to donate time and money until you win some elections. It’s a chicken and egg problem.
In the 2016 and 2018 primary election the IPO found itself with only a handful of candidates. And while some were smart and qualified to serve, they had little money and few active supporters. In most Legislative races no IPO members filed to run so a Democrat or Republican would win the IPO nomination with a handful of write in votes. In some cases well coordinated and funded Democrat or Republican who opposed all of the IPO agenda convinced a few dozen IPO members to write their name in and won the IPO cross nomination. That wasn’t good. And it muddied the IPO message.
The Money problem While there are a handful of independent legislators in other States, Oregon is particularly difficult place for an independent to win an election. Largely because we have no limits on campaign contributions. So contested legislative races can easily require over a half million dollars to compete. Compare Vermont where 7 members of the State Legislature are from the Progressive Party and 5 are independents. In Vermont a Democrat (Caleb Elder) Ousted a Republican Incumbent. Mr. Elder spent $10,480 while the incumbent spent $4,900. In Oregon even uncontested Legislative races see spending of four or five times that amount. It’s ridiculous.
The voting method problem for third parties Unless Oregon adopts some form of ranked choice voting, there is little chance any third party or independent candidate will win a partisan election where there are both Democratic and Republican candidates. Even in those rare cases where the IPO candidate is facing just one other major party candidate, those races only have one major candidate because they are safely blue or red, so chances are equally as slim.
Cross nomination, Fusion voting. Oregon allows cross nominations, largely because of the work of the early leadership of the Independent Party, who were able to get the Legislature to adopt a fusion voting law.
Oregon’s fusion voting law means that a candidate can be the cross nominee of several parties and can include up to three nominations on the ballot. You may have noticed that some candidates are listed on your ballot as the nominee of the Democratic, Working Families and Progressive Parties. Or the Republican, Libertarian and Constitutional Parties.
As a major party, cross nominations are out of the hands of the Party leadership. As a major party the winner of the IPO’s primary will be the Independent cross nominee, even if that candidate hates the idea of the Independent Party existing. (which many incumbent Democrats and Republicans surely do). None the less, most Democratic and Republican candidates have run write in campaign just to keep the IPO nomination out of the hands of their opponents. Some doubtless sincerely seek the support of the IPO and its members. Others are doing it as political strategy.
As a minor party, the IPO can retake control of its nomination. The party leadership can and will set rules as to who is eligible for the Independent nomination, we can review and question all candidates seeking our nomination.
Next Step. We have been planning for a return to minor party status and have a plan for how to best influence Oregon politics for the better.
We realized that until the voting process changes that we must plan on working with the Democratic and Republican candidates and seek to build bridges and reward those who support good government policies.
We will build out our platform to stake out a clear brand of good government trans partisan bridge builders. We will continue to support; consumer protection; election reform; campaign finance reform; responsible climate change policy and environmental justice for at risk populations; sound economic growth regulations that help urban and rural Oregon; and policies based on science not quackery.
If we can build that brand, then our nomination may come to indicate something when a voter sees it on the ballot. A candidate who has been nominated by the Democratic and Independent Parties will clearly have a commitment to campaign finance reform. A candidate with Republican and Independent Party nominations will not be a climate change denier.
And we have a strategy for giving local input in the nomination process. We will be contacting all local elected officials that are registered Independent Party members. They will be taking the lead on the nomination process in their districts. They know their community and be best positioned to determine a candidate’s character, abilities, and responsiveness to the local needs.
We don’t need political operatives or a donor base to take over our nomination process. Heck, we don’t have any now anyway. What we do have, and want, is an independent view from citizens who have already earned the trust of their communities by winning local elections.
We will seek to cross nominate in every single legislative race. Because in every race, one candidate is closer to the Independent bridge builder brand than the other. It’s that simple. They don’t need to be perfect. They just need to be better.
The optics of going from major to minor party is not good. We know that. But If you analyze the opportunities and consider what we’ve learned from the 2016 and 2018 primary elections, being a minor party is probably the best thing that can happen to the IPO. We now better understand our abilities and limitations. And frankly a lot has changed since 2016, particularly the increase in tribalism where voters are reluctant to vote for anyone not of their party. We will need to build confidence in the Oregon electorate that if a candidate earned the Independent Party nomination That means that the candidate has the knowledge, community ties, commitment, character, and willingness build bridges and engage in principled compromise to deliver results for all Oregonians.
That’s our brand. That’s what an IPO nomination means.