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Parties should open their primaries

Oregonians take pride in the state’s record of voter access innovations. Oregon pioneered vote-by-mail elections. It enacted an automatic voter registration system. And when legislators decided last year that even a stamp could be too much of a barrier, they passed a law authorizing prepaid postage on ballots as well.

Yet in one key way, Oregon stubbornly lags other states in making it easy to vote. Oregon’s “closed” primary system allows only voters who are registered with a major party to cast a ballot in that party’s primary. While the law allows major parties to voluntarily open their primary to non-affiliated voters, the Democratic and Republican parties have rarely done so. Even as Washington, California and other states have adopted voter-friendly “top-two” primaries that allow voters to choose candidates regardless of party affiliation, Oregon has resisted change.

In a state where the number of non-affiliated voters has surged, this partisan snobbery makes no sense. Oregon’s 942,000 non-affiliated voters make up one-third of the state’s registrants. They already outnumber registered Republicans and are on track to soon surpass the number of registered Democrats. Other parties, including the Independent Party, have also seen significant increases as more voters seek alternatives to politics as usual.

If the state truly values voter access, it shouldn’t leave the decision of whether to open up taxpayer-funded primary races to party committees, whose interests are partisan and narrow by definition. Oregonians need greater say in deciding who advances to the general election.

Oregonians should keep tabs on three fronts. The Democratic Party of Oregon, to its credit, is considering whether to open its primary to non-affiliated voters on all races except the presidential race and those for precinct committee persons. (Democratic National Committee rules bar the state Democratic party from opening up the presidential primary to voters who haven’t registered as Democrats, according to the party’s deputy director, Molly Woon.) The state central committee will be discussing the issue at a meeting next month.

Opening up the primary would likely pose some logistical complications and confusion over the inability to vote for a presidential candidate. But the Democratic party should still embrace the stance that no eligible voter should be forced to join a political party in order to exercise their basic right to vote. Taking such a position would not only show their commitment to voter access, but it could pressure the state Republican party, which is not yet considering opening its primary, to do so — just as the party did in 2012 for select races.

Second, Oregonians should encourage Secretary of State Bev Clarno’s efforts to explore whether to turn the office into a nonpartisan position. While that is more of a longterm goal, it would help limit the control that party dynamics exert on a position that must operate with independence to be effective.

And most important, Oregonians should press candidates running for secretary of state — who serves as the state’s top elections official — to advocate opening up the May primary and to make such access a central part of their platform. This is especially critical considering that all four declared candidates for the position so far are Democrats. If that holds, then the only people able to cast a vote for this critical statewide office would be those who have registered as Democrats.

Statewide races have been decided by one party before, such as in 2012 when Republicans did not field a candidate for the attorney general’s race. About 314,000 Democrats — less than 16 percent of registered voters at the time — cast ballots in that race, crowning Ellen Rosenblum as the winner.

When asked by The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board whether they would support opening the Democratic primary to non-affiliated voters, the four candidates offered varying levels of interest. Sen. Mark Hass of Beaverton firmly supported the idea. So, too, did candidate Ryan Wruck, an office manager from Salem. Jamie McLeod-Skinner, a Terrebonne resident who ran against Congressman Greg Walden last year, said she would support the idea if the Republican party also opened its primary to nonaffiliated voters. And Rep. Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, said she supports the party’s starting the conversation but is wary of changing it before studying how it fits in with other efforts that can increase voter access.

How the major parties and secretary of state candidates proceed will speak volumes about who they think should have a say in shaping Oregon’s future — its parties or its people.