Oregon Cities

Campaign to open Oregon primaries suspends signature gathering

Yet again, the campaign to open Oregon’s party primaries to all voters has foundered.

All Oregon Votes, the political campaign behind a ballot measure on open primaries, announced Monday that it is suspending signature gathering on Initiative Petition 26 due to a lack of resources. The initiative would have asked voters to approve a constitutional amendment requiring all voters to receive primary ballots with all candidates running for office, regardless of the voter’s political affiliation.

A years-long campaign to open Oregon's primaries has failed again, though supporters say they're not giving up.

A years-long campaign to open Oregon’s primaries has failed again, though supporters say they’re not giving up.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

About 1.3 million voters in Oregon cannot cast ballots in either the Democratic or Republican primaries because they are not registered with those parties. About 80% of them are nonaffiliated voters who represent the biggest voting bloc in Oregon. In Oregon, as in many states, most races are effectively decided in the primary.

The campaign has been trying since 2020 to get an open primary initiative on the ballot. The current effort dates to September 2022, but backers didn’t like the ballot title written by the attorney general’s office. Ballot titles, a crucial part of the process, can make or break an initiative because many voters don’t read the summaries or media stories on initiatives, analysts say. The group felt the title muddied the intent of the initiative and appealed to the state Supreme Court, which upheld the title.

Last April, the group came up with the current initiative. Michael Calcagno, a working dad who joined the effort in 2022, told the Capital Chronicle the repeated failures are frustrating.

“It’s incredibly disheartening,” Calcagno said. “To silence 1.3 million legal eligible registered voters is absurd.”

Survey data released last week by the nonpartisan Oregon Values and Beliefs Center found that 63% of respondents, including a majority of Democrats and Republicans, agree with opening primaries.

The suspension announcement comes about three months before Oregon’s primary election and just over four months before the deadline for turning in signatures for an initiative to make it on the November ballot. As a proposed constitutional amendment, the campaign would need about 160,000 valid signatures to get the initiative on the ballot. That means it would have had to collect 200,000 signatures to ensure it had enough, Calcagno said.

“The validity rate is around 80%,” Calcagno said.

The campaign is made up of individuals, including many retirees, Calcagno said, and lacks big donors needed to pay signature gatherers.

“No ballot measure can qualify without paid signature gathering,” Calcagno said. “Unless you’ve got a special interest group or a wealthy donor who’s willing to pay for signature gathering to happen, then you have to rely on volunteers.”

The last time an open primary ballot measure made it onto the Oregon ballot was Measure 90 in 2014. Phil Keisling, a former secretary of state, helped write the measure which would have eliminated the Democratic and Republican primaries and replaced it with a nonpartisan primary open to all voters. The top two vote getters would have battled it out in the general election.

Voters trounced it by 70%.

A similar effort in 2008 also failed.

Nevertheless, Calcagno said the campaign is not giving up and will try again in another two years.

“We are not stopping,” he said. “What’s wrong yesterday will be wrong tomorrow. We will talk to state lawmakers, political donors, philanthropic groups outside the state and see if we can’t move the needle.”

In a release, the campaign urged voters to contact their state lawmakers, voicing support for open primaries. The campaign also asked supporters to follow the group on social media.

Oregon is among nine states nationwide that have closed primaries. Calcagno said he’s been heartened by some recent successes. Alaska eliminated closed primaries in 2020, and Nevadans voted in favor of opening primaries in 2022. In November, voters there will vote again, confirming the choice.

“Nationally, the wind is at our backs,” Calcagno said.

This story was originally published by the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: info@oregoncapitalchronicle.com. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

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