Independent Party of Oregon faces a test of its mettle
By Claire Withycombe
EO Media Group reporter
The Independent Party of Oregon is preparing for a return to the minor leagues.
Four years ago, the party became the state's third major political party, having accrued the needed share of registered voters to qualify. But a massive wave of new voters registered under Oregon's recent automatic voter registration law has changed that.
The third-largest party in Oregon is expected to become a minor party again when Secretary of State Bev Clarno determines access to next year's primary ballot.
"We've been monitoring that and we're thinking it's very likely that they'll go back to being a minor party," Rich Vial, deputy secretary of state, said.
The difference between major and minor is more than nominal. In Oregon, party status changes who pays for primaries and how those nominating elections are conducted. For major parties, the state pays for the primary and voters get ballots to select nominees from their party, such as when two candidates run on the Republican ticket for state representative. Minor parties, by contrast, run their own primaries and have chosen various ways of doing so, ranging from conventions to elections where party members can vote for a candidate online. The nominees for various offices from those parties only appear on the general election ballot.
Despite a growing membership, voters registered with the Independent Party of Oregon now make up smaller share of registered voters, party leaders say, and that is due in part to the "Motor Voter" law. The law registers voters when they obtain or renew an Oregon driver's license automatically and records them as non-affiliated. They must later opt to register with a particular party.
About 924,000 Oregon voters aren't registered with any political party, according to state Elections Division figures. Those non-affiliated voters now outnumber the state's registered Republicans by more than 200,000.
Independents are members of their own party in Oregon, which has nearly 125,000 registered voters.
Patrick Starnes, a cabinetmaker from Brownsville, became fairly well known last year when he ran for governor as an Independent on a campaign finance reform platform. Starnes dropped out one week before the general election, endorsing Democrat Kate Brown, who was re-elected. About 600,000 voters had already turned in their ballots, including 28,000 voters registered with the Independent Party of Oregon.
This year, state lawmakers passed legislation that would have meant the Independent Party would remain a major party, but it is not expected to have an impact until the 2022 election. For next year's election, the ballot access deadline on Aug. 22 comes before the law can take effect.
Running a primary election
The party has gone from trying to protect its major party status to embracing minor party status. In 2015, the Independent Party asked lawmakers to change the rules so that it would remain a major party after the implementation of automatic voter registration. That proposal would have essentially stopped the clock, keeping Independents as a major party despite the chance it would fall below the required 5 percent share of the electorate after a surge in new voters.
Now the party is eager to return to minor party status, unless reforms are made to how major party primaries impact smaller parties.
"Under current law, IPO has 4.5 percent of all registered voters now and would not qualify as a major party for the 2020 cycle," party secretary Sal Peralta told lawmakers in June. "That is fine with us."
What's behind the change of heart? Minor parties have more control over who gets nominated by running their own primary voting process.
The party says Republicans and Democrats have an unfair advantage in the state-run primary. In most races, especially for the Legislature, there is no Independent candidate seeking the nomination, so voters registered as Independents would see only a write-in line on the ballot for that spot. However, when they open their Voters' Pamphlet — the packet of information listing candidates for specific offices — they'll see the other major party candidates running for the seat, along with a description of the candidates' platform and perhaps a photo.
Historically, Democrats and Republicans have run small campaigns to try to get Independent voters on board, sending postcards asking the voter to write them in on the ballot, said party co-chairman Rob Harris.
"We've seen people who are clearly adverse to our party's platform able to run this little write-in campaign and get some votes," said Harris.
Major party nominees must be members of that party at least 180 days before the registration deadline, and the Independent Party says that has limited who from its party can get written in on the ballot, especially as a younger political party.
"Democrats and Republicans could and were taking our cross nominations in the primary in a way they were heavily advantaged, oftentimes ahead of our own candidates, as write-ins," Peralta said.
Critics, meanwhile, claim that party-run primaries limit choices for party members.
But the Independent Party of Oregon says a relatively high number of voters have participated in its primaries in the past.
The party hasn't decided how it will run the primary in the future, but may consider new methods, such as rank-choice voting, which allows voters to choose more than one candidate and where the most popular candidate wins. The party also may put more emphasis on nominating who they consider to be viable candidates for office — those who have funding and experience.
"We want to be considered a reasonable, thoughtful, good-government brand that is realistic in our scope of ability to influence elections and elect people," Harris said.
There is at least one drawback to going back to return to a minor party in 2020: a loss of cachet.
"I think that people see that as, if you're relegated back to minor party, they think, 'Oh, you must be shrinking,'" Harris said. "But the reality is, we're growing, we continue to grow and we're actually growing at a greater percentage than the Democrats or the Republicans."
While the share of Oregon voters who are registered as Independents has gone down, the party has gained about 15,000 members since December 2015, the month before Motor Voter took effect.
Still, Independents, while soon to be the largest minor party, will still fall far behind the share of Oregonians registered as Democrats, Republicans or those not affiliated with any party.
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