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State Central Committee meeting at PCC Sylvania rejects proposal to open primary elections on Sunday, Nov. 17.

PMG PHOTO: ZANE SPARLING - Members of the Democratic Party of Oregon awaited the results of a vote that could have opened their primaries to non-affiliated voters. The Democratic Party of Oregon will keep the door barred to non-party members seeking to vote in the 2020 primary election.

The party voted 76-55 to effectively maintain the closed primary system used by just nine states across the United States during their state central committee meeting at Portland Community College's Sylvania campus on Sunday, Nov. 17.

"There are a whole lot of (non-affiliated voters) out there who are disillusioned with the party system," said Deren Ash, the Deschutes County Democrat who submitted the resolution. "They just don't want to join a party out of principle, and this gives us a tool to reach out to them."

The fate of the proposal wasn't entirely unexpected, as a special committee led by state Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, reviewed the resolution and voted 5 to 3 not to recommend its passage, according to an email sent by the senator earlier this month.

Even if the resolution had passed, non-affiliated voters — commonly called NAVs — still wouldn't have been able to vote for a Democratic primary candidate for U.S. president, as the Democratic National Committee specifically forbids its state orgs from opening their primaries to just anyone.

"This would unintentionally disenfranchise unaffiliated voters, who might see this as a bait and switch," said Sen. Frederick, noting that cost is another concern.

The resolution would have also prevented NAVs from voting for party precinct persons. Oregon's primary election will be held Tuesday, May 19 next year.

Pros and cons

PMG PHOTO: ZANE SPARLING - State Sen. Lew Frederick spoke on a non-affiliated voter proposal at PCC Sylvania on Sunday, Nov. 17. Supporters said the idea would boost participation by extending a hand to nearly a million statewide unaffiliated voters, half of which are under age 30. More than a third each are African American, Latino or Asian.

Opponents of the proposal, however, warned that open primaries would become a Trojan horse for "strategic voting" — wherein enemies of the party deviously vote for the primary candidate they think is most likely to lose the general election.

Documents distributed at the meeting said about a third of NAVs, or 319,000, identify as conservative. Republicans last held an open primary for the offices of treasurer, attorney general and secretary of state in 2012.

Critics also noted that the electorate can already change their party membership with just a few clicks on the Oregon Secretary of State's website, whereas the proposal would have required NAVs to send a written request to a county clerk for the special ballot. The Dems gained about 94,000 members in 2016, most of who presumably wished to vote in the closed presidential primary.

"NAVs are increasing at a rate of tens of thousands per month, while Democrats are increasing at a rate of only thousands a month," noted Michael Smith, speaking in favor of the resolution.

The issue is far from settled.

Non-affiliated voters have surged to nearly 942,000 thanks to the state's motor-voter law, which automatically enrolls Oregonians when they head to the DMV.

With 973,000 registered Democrats — and 704,000 registered Republicans, according to state reports — those with no party allegiance are poised to attain the numerical majority sometime next year.

"Are we the party that wants to be a closed club," asked Multnomah County Democrat Ami Fox. "That's what not reaching out to the NAVs during this election is going to do — further disenfranchise voters."

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