Third Major Party Complicates Governor Debates

Independent Party Co-Chairperson and election law expert Dan Meek says the Independent Party status as a major party could make the anticipated  “Buehler/Brown only” debates problematic.

According to Meek, under Oregon law, all major party candidates – including the Independent Party nominee for Governor, Patrick Starnes – must be invited to a debate, or the event is considered a campaign contribution to the candidates who are invited. In such case all expenses related to the debate must be reported on ORESTAR as in-kind contributions to the participating candidates.  Even advertisements touting such a debate campaign contributions and must be reported on ORESTAR, according to Meek.

 The statute Meek points to only excludes from reportable contributions “A candidate debate or forum for a state office, or a communication publicizing a candidate debate or forum for a state office, when all major political party candidates for the state office have been invited to participate in the candidate debate or forum.”

 In addition, Meek says that since some types of organizations that typically sponsor debates are not allowed by law or by their own bylaws to make campaign contributions, they could not sponsor, hold, advertise or broadcast any debates, unless the Independent candidates were invited to participate along with the Democratic and Republican nominees. This could exclude as sponsors organizations such as Oregon Public Broadcasting, the City Club of Portland, the Oregon League of Women Voters, and all charitable or educational organizations certified under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3), which are forbidden by federal law from making political campaign contributions to candidates for public office.

 While the Governors debates are currently in the news, the law applies equally to debates for any State Legislative race where there is an Independent Party Candidate in addition to a Republican and/or a Democrat.

 This law doesn’t prevent a two-person Governor debate; it simply means that not for profit organizations may not be able to sponsor them and that all sponsors will need to report their expenditures for the event (and for advertising it) on ORESTAR, Oregon’s campaign finance reporting system.

 The other law that Meek believes will come into play with three major parties is the federal Equal Time rule, which requires that all TV and radio broadcasters provide major party candidates with air time equal to that provided to the other major candidates, on the same terms. For example, if KGW does a half-hour interview with Brown or Buehler, KGW has to broadcast a half-hour interview with the IPO nominee Patrick Starnes at such time as it receives equivalent viewership.

 This shouldn’t be a surprise.  In 2014 radio stations that broadcasted Democratic State Senator Betsy Johnson’s Saturday radio show had to provide the Independent Party Candidate – Drew Kaza – with an equal amount of radio time on the same terms.

 Historically, non-Republican/Democratic candidates have not fully exercised these rights for financial and tactical reasons, though leaders of the IPO have been aware of the rules. However, this years Oregon Governor race may be different, as Starnes plans to run on the central issue of campaign finance reform. And what better way to illustrate Oregon’s lack of campaign finance reform laws and how political operatives and donors seek to avoid what few laws exist than by demanding 100% compliance with existing laws?

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