Published by the Portland Tribune, 8/13/2015
by Jim Redden

Oregon could enter a new chapter in election politics next week — if only for one campaign cycle.

The Secretary of State's Office is scheduled to announce on Aug. 17 whether the Independent Party of Oregon has enough registered voters to qualify for major party status, like the state's Democratic and Republican parties. If it does, the state will be required to finance and conduct its 2016 primary election, and its winning candidates will appear on the general election ballot opposite the Democratic and Republican nominees.

State election law grants any party major status if it registers 5 percent of the voters in the previous general election. This year's deadline is Sunday, Aug. 16. The most recent count shows the Independent Party had 109,273 registered voters as of July 31, a mere 534 over the minimum.

"Overwhelmingly, the people coming to the Independent Party are joining because they are frustrated by the polarization and hyperpartisanship that they are seeing in the Legislature and in our elections," says Independent Party Secretary Sal Peralta.

The numbers will keep changing until Sunday, however, as new voters continue to register and existing voters change party affiliations. In addition, election laws allow voters to be removed from the list of active registered voters by county clerks if they have not voted in the past five elections or their last vote-by-mail ballot was returned as undeliverable.

In anticipation of being declared a major party, Independent Party officials issued a news release last week soliciting candidates to run in their primary election. As a minor party in the past, any candidate could seek the support of the Independent Party, including Democrats and Republicans. It nominated Democrat John Kitzhaber for Oregon governor in 2010 and Republican Dennis Richardson against Kitzhaber in 2014. But if the Independent Party becomes a major party, its candidates must be registered with the party, although a party credentials committee could make exceptions.

Candidates who want to appear on the 2016 Independent Party primary election ballot must register with the party by Sept. 10.

However, the benefits of major party status could be short-lived for the Independent Party. The so-called Motor Voter bill passed by the 2015 Oregon Legislature is scheduled to take effect in 2017, automatically registering hundreds of thousands of Oregon voters based on their driver's license information.

All initially will be registered as nonaffiliated voters, likely dropping the Independent Party's registration level below the 5 percent mark. State elections officials will send postcards to the newly registered voters, giving them the option of remaining unaffiliated, registering with a major or minor party, or canceling their registration. Only a concerted and successful push by the Independent Party to register a sizable share of these new voters will maintain its major party status.

But even if the Independent Party is only a major party for one campaign cycle, it could have an outsized impact on Oregon politics — even if none of its candidates win. Although Democrats currently hold all statewide elected offices and both chambers of the Oregon Legislature, it is unknown whether Independent Party challengers would draw more votes from their candidates, increasing the odds for the Republicans in a number of races.

"About 90 percent of legislative districts in Oregon are not seriously contested by either the Democrats or the Republicans. In those districts, the races are essentially decided in the primary election by the most partisan voters. This is a big part of the polarization we are seeing," Peralta says.

Rapid rise

The rise of the Independent Party has been impressive. Founded in 2008 by petitions bearing the signatures of more than 30,000 registered voters, it has grown steadily in all of the following years. Although 5 percent of registered voters may not sound like a lot, it is far more than any other minor party in the state. All are under 1 percent, including the Constitution, Libertarian and Green parties, which have been around longer.

But the increase of registered Independent Party voters is not without controversy. In June, the state's Democratic and Republican parties accused the Independent Party of attracting voters who do not realize they have registered with an organized party. The accusations were accompanied by a poll financed by House Democrats that found 22 percent of Independent Party voters thought they actually were registered as nonaffiliated voters.

"If we're going to have major parties, we need to make sure their members actually intended to join, and that they are active and engaged in democratic processes," Oregon Democratic Party Chairman Frank Dixon said when the poll was released.

Independent Party officials do not dispute the findings, but insist many Oregon voters are looking for organized alternatives to the Democrats and Republicans. Last week, the Independent Party released a poll of its own that found just one-third of Oregon voters feel well-represented by the two major parties, compared to 40 percent of voters who believe that a third major party is needed. The poll also found that 80 percent of voters surveyed would consider voting for Independent Party candidates or joining the party, and one in five Oregon voters would consider joining the Independent Party of Oregon.

"This survey shows that there is strong support for the Independent Party and its candidates heading into the 2016 election. Oregonians, like voters across the country, do not feel well-represented by the two-party system and are ready for a third mainstream alternative," Peralta said when the poll was released.