Election 2014 — Voters evaluate pros, cons of measure that would change primary elections

SALEM — A citizen panel got down to business quickly Aug. 18 to ask questions about a ballot measure that would change Oregon’s primary elections.

The 20 panel members are Oregon voters chosen at random from willing participants to reflect a diverse cross-section. They are the latest participants in the Citizens’ Initiative Review, which has taken place in some form since 2010.

At the meeting, panel members asked questions of supporters and opponents — seated side by side at the Salem Convention Center — about Measure 90.

“It’s a little more intense,” said Tyrone Reitman, executive director of Healthy Democracy, the nonprofit that conducts the review process under the authority of a state commission.

In previous cycles, supporters and opponents presented their cases separately to the citizens’ panel. This time, although they sat side by side, panel members asked the questions.

Reitman said each panel will focus on three key questions: Why is the measure on the ballot? What does the measure do? What will happen as a result of the measure?

“This process is really about evaluating claims coming from the campaigns and distilling their arguments,” Reitman said.

Panels will draft statements of their findings and summarize the five top arguments for and against the selected measure.

Their statements will become part of the voters’ pamphlet and online voters’ guide.

Oregon was the first state to institute such reviews for ballot measures, based on polling disclosing that 75 percent of voters found ballot measures too complicated or confusing to understand. Arizona and Colorado will follow suit this year.

Following a test panel in 2008 and two pilot panels in 2010, Oregon lawmakers set up a review process under a state commission in 2011. Two measures each election cycle have been chosen for review.

The 2010 and 2012 panels had five days to do their work; this year’s panels had three and a half days.

But Reitman said the shorter period has already undergone a test. Last spring, a similar panel conducted by Healthy Democracy evaluated a Jackson County ballot measure banning genetically modified organisms.

Measure 92, which would require labeling of GMOs in food processed or sold in Oregon, will be evaluated by a different panel this week.

Measure 90 would change Oregon’s primary election law, which since 1904 allows registered Democrats to choose Democratic nominees and registered Republicans to choose Republican nominees for general elections. Measure 90 would allow the top two finishers in a primary, regardless of party, to advance to the general election.

“It works ‘reasonably’ well for certain parties,” said Jim Kelly, the measure’s chief sponsor and an eastern Oregon rancher and founder of the Portland store Rejuvenation Inc. But Kelly said the closed-primary system has shut out the growing number of voters who choose not to be affiliated with a party — and that is why Measure 90 is seen as a threat to the major parties.

“They are concerned about anything that changes the existing system,” Kelly said. “But it’s not working for anybody who cares about the government functioning.”

A similar measure was rejected by Oregon voters in 2008. But California and Washington now have top-two primaries.

“People feel the demographics of the electorate has changed even more since then,” as up to half of Oregon voters under 40 have declined to affiliate, said Barbara Dudley, senior policy adviser for the Working Families Party.

But Greg Leo, executive director of the Oregon Republican Party, said Measure 90 would make far-reaching changes that are not needed in Oregon.

Sara Logue, a Forest Grove teacher who will be the spokeswoman for the coalition against Measure 90, said passage will create more problems than it purports to solve.

In addition to Republican and Democratic parties, the opposition consists of labor unions and small political parties.

“The one thing we share is that our system works reasonably well for the greatest number of people,” Leo said.

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