Nonaffiliated voters are the largest bloc but are currently barred from voting in most primary elections

By Julia Shumway, Oregon Capital Chronicle, April 17, 2023

Supporters of opening primaries to all voters started fresh on Monday with a new proposed ballot measure that would prohibit closed primaries beginning in 2027.

All Oregon Votes, the political organization behind the effort, started pushing to get a measure on the November 2024 ballot last September. Supporters collected 1,000 signatures from Oregon voters, the first step toward getting a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot, and the Oregon Justice Department drafted a ballot title for the measure, the next step in the process. 

But the group disagreed with the Justice Department’s proposed description, that the measure would amend the state constitution and “changes general election nomination processes: all candidates for certain partisan offices participate in [the] same primary” because it didn’t mention voters. It appealed to the state Supreme Court, which late last month upheld the ballot title. 

On Monday, All Oregon Votes submitted a new proposed constitutional amendment in the form of Initiative Petition 26, called the Oregon Voting Rights Amendment. It would require that any ballot a voter receives include all candidates for an office, regardless of the voter’s or candidate’s political affiliation or lack thereof, and it would mandate the same standards for qualifying for office for candidates regardless of political affiliation.

The measure doesn’t spell out how open primaries would work on purpose, organizer Michael Calcagno said. It would give a two-year gap between the measure’s possible passage in 2024, with it taking effect in 2027 to give the Legislature time to pass laws implementing a new election system. 

“We live in a representative democracy where we get to vote on people to go to Salem and make the sausage, and we didn’t feel like we should make the sausage as a group of private citizens proposing a ballot measure,” Calcagno said. “Model legislation is only derived through expert testimony, public input and public hearings, and we feel like this is going to catalyze that process.”

Currently, only people registered with the Democratic or Republican parties are allowed to vote in party primaries. And candidates who aren’t registered with a political party face a harder path to the ballot: They must collect signatures from hundreds or thousands of voters, while candidates running as Democrats or Republicans pay a fee, fill out a two-page form and compete in a primary election. 

Nonaffiliated voters are Oregon’s largest bloc, with almost 1.06 million nonaffiliated voters as of April 6, according to the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office. Democrats come next, with just more than 1.01 million voters, followed by Republicans at almost 730,000.

Calcagno said starting over would give supporters a little less time than planned to gather the nearly 161,000 signatures it needs from registered voters to make the ballot, but he’s confident they’ll make the July 2024 deadline. 

“We had hoped for about 18 months worth of time for signature gathering, and we may end up with only about 12 months for signature gathering, but we still feel very good that 12 months is plenty of time to reach that qualification threshold,” he said. 

People trying to change the state constitution or pass laws at the ballot box must first gather 1,000 signatures from voters to show there’s some interest in a measure, then receive a ballot title and summary from the Justice Department. Supporters or opponents then get a chance to appeal to the state Supreme Court for changes to the title, which can cause delays or spell early defeat for a measure. 

Only after the legal challenges are done do supporters get to begin collecting signatures from voters to make the ballot. Constitutional amendments require 160,551 valid signatures by July 5, 2024, while changes to state statute require 120,413 signatures. 

What the initiative says

Amend Article II, Section 1 of the state Constitution to read:

Section 1. Elections free.

(1) All elections shall be free and equal.

(2) Equal rights under the laws of elections for public office shall not be denied or abridged by the state of Oregon, nor by any political subdivision in this state, on account of political party affiliation or nonaffiliation.

(a) No qualified elector shall be denied access to a ballot for public office, nor be restricted from selecting any candidates for public office, based on political party affiliation or nonaffiliation.

(b) The ballot for each qualified elector shall include all qualified candidates for a particular public office regardless of political party affiliation or nonaffiliation.

(c) All qualified candidates for a particular public office shall be subject to the same candidacy and filing requirements regardless of political party affiliation or nonaffiliation.

(d) The legislative assembly shall enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this section.

(e) Subsection (2) of this section applies to all elections for public office, including general elections, special elections, and primary elections, that occur on or after January 1, 2027. As used in subsection (2) of this section, “public office” excludes nominations for President and Vice President of the United States unless provided by statute.

FEATURED IMAGE:  Jeff Ogg receives a ballot Monday, May 16, 2022, at a drive-up Marion County ballot drop site in Salem. (Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

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