We've been consistently impressed with efforts by Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson to expand voting throughout the state. On that count, he's been a worthy successor to previous secretaries of state and has followed in the footsteps of folks like former Linn County Clerk Del Riley, the father of Oregon's vote-by-mail system.
With that said, however, Richardson's latest proposal regarding voting in Oregon is a head-scratcher.
Richardson (working with Alan Zundel, the Pacific Green Party's candidate for secretary of state in 2016, the year Richardson won the office) is pushing an idea that would allow the state's nonaffiliated voters a larger say in primary elections. (The idea is before the Legislature in the form of Senate Bill 225.)
A word about these nonaffiliated voters: As the label suggests, these are voters who have not aligned themselves with any of the state's political parties — Republican, Democratic, Pacific Green, Independent, Libertarian, Constitution, Working Families, what have you.
Only voters who are affiliated with a particular party get to vote in that party's primary elections. So the ballot that nonaffiliated voters get for primary elections can be a thin affair, listing only races for nonpartisan positions such as judgeships.
Senate Bill 225 would change that by allowing nonaffilated voters to participate in their own primary. Under the proposal, nonaffiliated candidates could file for office. Nonaffiliated voters would then choose among those candidates, and the winner would advance to the general election.
Now, some of you might be thinking this: Doesn't this turn nonaffliated voters into what amounts to another political party? That's a good question. Hold onto it for a few more paragraphs.
The reason Richardson is concerned about nonaffiliated voters is that they've emerged over the last few years as a substantial bloc: In Oregon, some 880,000 voters (including the writer of this editorial) are registered as nonaffiliated. The number of such voters in Oregon is larger than the number of registered Republicans.
Part of the reason for the growth in the ranks of nonaffiliated voters has to do with the state's so-called "motor voter" law, which automatically registers people to vote when they get or renew a driver's license.
Voters who are registered through the motor voter law are assumed to be nonaffiliated unless they specify a party. Voters can specify their preferred party on a card that is mailed to them. If voters don't return the cards, they remain on the voting rolls as nonaffiliated, which explains the upsurge in those ranks.
Richardson laments that those 880,000 nonaffilated voters get shut out of primary elections, but let's take a look at the two big reasons why voters might not want to affiliate themselves with a political party.
The first reason is that a voter simply doesn't feel comfortable specifying a party. Those voters likely understand that they're not going to be receiving fat primary ballots. Besides, if a primary race catches a voter's fancy, it's not at all hard to switch affiliation for that particular election and then switch back to the nonaffiliated stance.
The second reason (and we suspect this is the case, but it remains for an enterprising political science student to track this down) is this: Many of the voters who have registered through the motor-voter law simply don't care about party affiliation. If they did care, they'd return the card.
So, while we appreciate the sentiments behind Senate Bill 225, it has the feel of a solution in search of a problem.
In the meantime, that bloc of unaffiliated voters in Oregon represents a big political prize for the candidates or parties that figure out the best ways to mobilize it. Those voters could become a transforming force in state politics — but they have to vote first. (mm)