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Open primary amendment faces uphill battle

Supporters of opening up Oregon primary elections to nonaffiliated voters are trying to qualify a constitutional amendment for the November ballot that would accomplish that. The effort is a long shot, and it’s unfortunate that it’s even necessary — especially given the changing face of the state’s electorate.

Last month, for the first time, voters not affiliated with any political party edged out registered Democrats as the most numerous bloc in the state. Nonaffiliated voters have outnumbered Republicans for some time.

That means Democratic and Republican candidates must compete for those voters as well as their own to win general elections. But nonaffiliated voters don’t have any say in choosing those major-party candidates in primary elections.

Although primary elections are conducted at taxpayer expense, the political parties determine who may vote in them. Nothing would prevent the Democratic and Republican parties from allowing independent voters to participate, but they have refused to do so.

That’s understandable on one level. The Legislature and Congress are traditionally controlled by one party or the other, and party officials are naturally reluctant to allow non-party members any say in who will appear on the November ballot.

But limiting primary participation to voters who represent a shrinking share of the electorate only serves to perpetuate the partisan divide that makes many voters feel government does not represent them.

It is no small irony that the Democrats are the party most responsible for the growth in independent voters. A 2015 law passed with heavy Democratic support automatically registers people who get or renew driver’s licenses as nonaffiliated voters. Those newly registered get a postcard in the mail allowing them to choose a party instead it they wish. But people who weren’t registered to start with aren’t generally inclined to be strongly partisan.

The rationale for that law was to increase participation in elections. And yet the one step that would do the most to accomplish that — opening up primaries — gets no support from either major party.

The proposed constitutional amendment would simply state that publicly funded elections for state and federal office would be open to all qualified candidates and voters regardless of party affiliation or non-affiliation. It would not apply to presidential primaries or county commissioner races.

The details would be left up to the Legislature. In some states, nonaffiliated voters may request a Democratic or Republican ballot, but they have to choose one or the other. California and Washington have top-two primaries. Alaska has adopted a ranked-choice system.

Backers of the amendment must collect 150,000 signatures by July 8 to qualify for the November ballot, but they have little money to pay petition gatherers.

Meanwhile, nonaffiliated voters determined to have a say in the May primary can change their registration by April 26, but they have to choose one party or the other. They can change back after the primary if they wish.

Few voters are dedicated enough to go to the trouble. It would be better if they were allowed to participate, but that will depend on either a vote of the people or a change of heart by party officials.