by Taylor Anderson
published on 2/8/2015 by the Bend Bulletin

SALEM — The Independent Party of Oregon last month received enough members to become the newest major party in the country, joining Oregon’s Republican and Democratic parties that receive state-funded primaries.

It was a well-documented and long-expected achievement as voters left the two main parties to become either unaffiliated with any party orregister with a minor group, and the Independent Party membership steadily grew.

So party officials and a former secretary of state wonder why Secretary of State Kate Brown hasn’t certified the party as Oregon’s first new major political group in decades. The longer Brown waits to certify the party — she has until mid-August — the less time the party has to get ready for its first election comparable to the other major parties, so the party’s officials hope Brown moves quickly as they prepare for 2016.

“What’s really driving the membership growth is that more than half the country doesn’t feel well-represented by either two of the major parties,” party secretary Sal Peralta said.

A minor party hits the major threshold when its total membership is more than 5 percent of the number of registered voters for the 2014 general election. Independents passed that threshold by five members this month, with the largest concentration of members residing in Deschutes County.

Former Secretary of State Phil Keisling said he was surprised to hear Brown’s office didn’t have a decision ready when the party hit the number, considering the party’s rapid growth has been well-known since its 2007 founding.

“I think it would be reasonable to expect a declaration by the secretary of state of this status along with the notification of the party official that (Independents) are now” a major party, Keisling said.

Brown’s office said declaring a new major party isn’t cut and dry because it’s not every day a minor party becomes major.

State law gives Brown a mid-August deadline for recognizing a new major party, but the statute doesn’t say she needs to do it immediately.

Brown has asked for an opinion from Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum on how to proceed.

“We are looking into when is the correct time to conduct a formal recognition process,” said Tony Green, Brown’s spokesman. Brown declined through Green to be interviewed for this story.

August may be too late for anyone interested in running as an Independent in 2016 to know whether the party will be major or minor, said Dan Meek, the party’s co-chair.

“As long as our major party status has not been determined by the secretary of state, then anyone who is considering a candidacy in an Independent Party primary is sort of in limbo,” Meek said.

Meek also said remaining a minor party until August would hurt the party’s ability to attract serious candidates because state law requires candidates in major party primaries to be members of the party for 180 days before the filing deadline, or about eight months before the primary.

“While an eight-month requirement is no problem for long-established major parties, which have stables of potential candidates, it will be a large barrier to participation by political novices who are not likely to plan to run more than eight months in advance of the primary election,” Meek wrote in testimony to the Legislature this week.

Until this point, the party has largely functioned as a kind of endorsement for major party candidates through the state’s fusion voting process, which allows candidates to appear on a ballot with multiple party endorsements.

It has run its own Internet-based primaries open to all members, but participation is low, with winners in some legislative races getting a few dozen votes each.

Meek is proposing to change the eight-month requirement this year and he has an interested ear from Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, who also had the Independent and Libertarian endorsements for the 2014 election.

Buehler said he’s looking for ways to allow more than a third of the state’s voters to participate in a meaningful primary election who currently can’t. He said he’d like to propose changes so the fastest-growing voting bloc can participate.

“One way to do it is to have the open primary just for nonaffiliated and Independent Party members that’s paid for by the state like in Democratic and Republican primaries,” Buehler said. The groups could pick between the winners of the Republican and Democratic primaries for the districts, Buehler said.

“That way the parties don’t have to feel like they’re being influenced by those voters, they can have the purity of their party but still the Independent Party is being heard,” he said.

A ballot measure that would have created primaries open to all voters where the top two vote-getters advance to the general election failed handily in November after the two main parties opposed it.

Less than 10 percent of districts in Oregon are still considered toss-ups in elections. Peralta believes adding another option would attract voters and candidates who would otherwise choose the Republican or Democratic parties.

“If we can use this party to make some legislative districts competitive that aren’t currently competitive because of gerrymandering then we will have done something good for the state,” he said.