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Our Opinion: Open wide

Voters discouraged by the partisan battles in Oregon politics may have a chance to change the dynamic if an open primary initiative makes the November ballot. Backers of the initiative say they have turned in more than 140,000 signatures to the secretary of state's office, which should be enough to yield the 87,213 signatures of registered voters required to qualify the measure for the ballot.

If the measures passes, it would replace the present partisan primary election with an open primary. Any voter could choose any candidate in any race, regardless of party, and the top two vote-getters for each office would advance to the general election, again regardless of party affiliation.

We have consistently supported the open primary concept, for good reasons.

The strongest argument is that unaffiliated voters — independents with a small "i" — may not vote in partisan primaries. That's a huge chunk of the electorate shut out of determining who will appear on the ballot in November.

The last time an open primary measure was on the ballot, in 2008, independent voters made up 25 percent of the electorate. Their share is now 31 percent.

That means neither major party commands a majority of the state's voters. And yet the Republicans and Democrats maintain their stranglehold on the nominating process.

The result, in practice, means too often the candidates who win the primary reflect the extremes of their respective parties. The contest in November therefore becomes a race between a conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat. In the Legislature, that means a greater likelihood of partisan gridlock.

The parties would do themselves a favor by opening up the primaries to unaffiliated voters — if they think their candidates can attract enough independents to win one of the top two spots. That's not how they see it, of course.

The Democrats in particular are dead set against an open primary — because the present system has been working to their advantage. The party doesn't represent a majority of voters, but Democrats outnumber Republicans statewide, and no Republican has held a partisan statewide office in years.

In statewide races, Republicans pay the price for the present partisan rules, because their candidates often must convince primary voters they are more conservative than their opponent, only to have to appear more moderate to win in November. That's likely why the Republicans opened their primary to independents in selected races as recently as 2012.

The open primary could result in a general election contest between two Republicans or two Democrats. That would actually be a good thing, because in a largely one-party district, the minority party candidate would have little or no chance anyway, and two candidates from a single party would at least give voters a choice in November — and that would tend to keep incumbents in "safe" seats on their toes.

The Legislature has taken a look at open primary legislation in the past, but nothing came of it. If this measure qualifies for the ballot, the decision will be up to those whose opinion ought to matter the most: the voters.