Measure 90 is debated at Salem City Club.

SALEM — By advancing the top two finishers in a primary — regardless of their party affiliation — Measure 90 either will prod candidates to appeal to the political center or reduce choices that Oregon voters will have in future general elections.

Although voters rejected a similar measure in 2008, both sides returned Friday to a Salem City Club luncheon to argue the merits of Measure 90 on the Nov. 4 ballot.

Back then, it was former Secretary of State Phil Keisling for it, and former Gov. Barbara Roberts against it. Both are Democrats.

On Friday, it was Jim Kelly, an Eastern Oregon rancher, founder of Portland’s Rejuvenation Inc. and the measure's chief sponsor, for it, and Sara Logue, a teacher who spoke for the Protect Our Vote coalition against it.

The measure would change Oregon’s primary elections, which date back to 1904, and now allow only registered Democratic and Republican voters to choose their party nominees. Third parties have other options to choose their nominees.

Though the system once worked fine, Kelly says, “times and realities have changed.”

The case for change

Although 69 percent of Oregon’s 2.14 million registered voters are affiliated with the major parties, according to August reports from the secretary of state, Kelly says almost 700,000 are not, including the growing share (24 percent) of voters not choosing to register with any party and are shut out of the nominating process.

With conservatives (and Republicans) largely in rural areas and liberals (and Democrats) in cities, he added, “our current primary system is part of what has helped create the current gridlock — government shutdowns and the poisonous political environment.”

Every two years, Kelly says, only a relative handful of seats in the Oregon House and Senate are truly competitive in general elections. Most are decided in primaries.

Although the top two vote-getters in a new system may come from the major parties, Kelly says minor parties with geographic concentrations can prevail in some districts.

Since Oregon became a state in 1859, he said, only one unaffiliated candidate has been elected to the Legislature and one independent elected governor.

(They were Charles Hanlon of Cornelius in 1974 to the Oregon Senate, who later became a Democrat, and Julius Meier in 1930 as governor. Bob Jenson of Pendleton was elected to the Oregon House as a Democrat in 1996, an independent in 1998, and a Republican since 2000. He is leaving office this year.)

Oregon’s neighbors, Washington and California, instituted top-two primaries in 2008 and 2012.

“Political parties are important, but they should not come first,” Kelly says. “Voters should come first.”

Who's for and against

Measure 90 has created some unusual alliances.

The Democratic and Republican parties are opposed, as are the Pacific Green and Progressive parties. Labor unions, which have funded Our Oregon, have joined the opposition.

"Measure 90 does limit choice," Logue says.

Logue says voters will end up with fewer choices because most candidates — particularly those in minor parties — will be eliminated in the primary.

In some instances, she adds, the two finalists emerging from a top-two primary are from the same party, as in Washington state, where the 4th District will elect one of two Republicans to succeed a retiring Republican.

Contrary to arguments by some supporters, she adds, “I do not believe Measure 90 will elect more moderate candidates.”

Logue says political parties would "game" who they favor for nominations, and would make the process more secretive than the current primary.

Logue says voters should consider who is in favor of the change, including Associated Oregon Industries and the Oregon Business Association.

“When we change our system to produce specific outcomes, it’s a bad sign for our democracy,” she says. “I am skeptical that big business has my interests at heart.”

Kelly says businesses are not a political monolith, but do share support for effective education and health care, and environmental standards and public works infrastructure.

“Virtually all understand that government is broken down with partisan bickering,” he says. “I would call this enlightened self-interest. Greed, it is not. A hidden agenda, it is not.”

Kelly helped bankroll the signature-gathering efforts for Measure 90, along with Brett Wilcox of Portland and four other Oregon businesses or executives. The cost was just under $500,000.

The principal campaign committee for Measure 90 has raised about $500,000 and spent $300,000, according to reports filed with the secretary of state. The opposition has raised $127,000 and has about $115,000 on hand. The amounts are expected to increase, and the lag between receipt and reporting of contributions will shorten in the month before the election.

Other things

Logue says there are better steps Oregon can take to increase participation in elections, such as a focus on registration of younger voters ages 18 to 34, automatic voter registration when licensed drivers change their addresses, and election-day voter registration that Oregon had from 1975 until a 20-day cutoff was voted in 1986.

“The other challenge is to get big money out of politics; that’s the real problem we face,” she says. “Replacing our primary system will not change that.”

Kelly says he anticipates that a similar debate will take place at the City Club of Portland, but just three Friday Forum dates are available before the Nov. 4 election.

Kelly says if the measure fails, the public should not expect lawmakers and the two major parties to propose alternatives.

On the other hand, he says, “it will not be a panacea for all that ails politics.”

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