Regional Public Journalism
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Oregon Legislature. This is a venue for political and policy coverage of the state government in Salem and its impact on the people of Oregon.

Measure 90 Would Bring Top Two Primaries To Oregon

Chris Phan
Flickr -

This fall, Oregon voters will choose between five candidates for U.S. senator and six candidates for governor. It could be the last time the general election ballot is this crowded in Oregon.

That's because of one of the initiatives up for a vote this year. Measure 90 would create a nonpartisan primary for all candidates. The top two would advance to the general election, regardless of party.

For now, to vote in a primary for a partisan office, Oregon voters have to belong to a major political party. And for now, that means the one-third of Oregon voters with no major party affiliation can't. Measure 90 would change that too.

It’s similar to the elections system already in place in Washington state.

Impossible victory?

Consider Washington’s Fourth Congressional District. It’s east of the Cascades and stretches all the way from the Oregon line up to the Canadian border. Not a lot of Democrats call it home. Even fewer get elected.

Yakima County Democratic Party chair Dany Adolf says at least they're trying. But in this fall's Congressional election, victory will be impossible for his party. That's because the top two vote-getters in the August primary were both Republicans.

So what's a Democrat like Dany Adolf to do? Hold your nose and choose between—his words—the lesser of two evils.

"I say that metaphorically. I don't say that either one of those guys are evil,” Adolf said. “ But we're in a quandary now that we have to vote for somebody we don't like…or don't vote."

It's a real-life scenario like this that gives political parties the willies. But supporters of the top two primary system say it's not necessarily a bad outcome.

'A system that doesn't reward partisanship'

"Not all candidates of a political party are created equally,” said Sal Peralta, secretary of the Independent Party of Oregon. He said a general election with two candidates from the same party could offer a real choice to voters who don't usually have a meaningful say in the outcome of a general election.

Let's say you have a legislative district in the middle of Portland that's overwhelmingly D. The winner of the primary is effectively the winner of the general election -- and anyone who's not a Democrat didn't have a say in the matter. The same thing happens east of the Cascades where Republicans vastly outnumber Democrats. Measure 90 would allow all voters regardless of party to cast a vote for any candidate in the primary.

Peralta said that would mean candidates would have to appeal to a wider array of voters starting in the primary.

"The goal is to create a system that doesn't reward partisanship, that rewards candidates who appeal to voters regardless of party affiliation,” Peralta said. “And the ultimate goal, I think, is to create better policy outcomes."

The prospect of reducing partisanship is hammered home in a TV commercial for Measure 90, which features a bunch of people in suits playing tug-of-war.

"They fight and argue, push and shove. But nothing gets done,” says a voice in the ad. “Oregon can break partisan gridlock with Measure 90.”

Democrats and Republicans united

Ironically, even before Election Day, the measure has already succeeded in bringing Democrats and Republicans together. Both parties have come out strongly against the top two primary initiative.

Sara Logue is the spokeswoman for the "Protect Our Vote Coalition" which has formed to fight Measure 90.

"It damages our democracy because it gives a minority of our population a majority of influence over who we can vote for,” she said.

She said it's already a problem that few people vote in a primary. She believes that letting two candidates of the same party end up on the general election ballot will take choices away from the larger number of November voters.

"I just believe we should have more choice on our general election ballot,” Logue said. “I know that I don't feel the same as some of my friends politically, and when I look at a general election ballot I want to be able to find someone who represents my values and my voice on that ballot to vote for."

This isn’t the first time Oregonians will vote on a top two primary measure. A similar initiative failed by a wide margin in 2008.