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Is Oregon's primary election system fundamentally flawed? Print E-mail
chuck-bennettby Chuck Bennett
It's hard to pick up a newspaper or listen to a retired Oregon Secretary of State and not come away believing Oregon's Primary Election system is fundamentally flawed. There's even a website One Oregon, One Ballot devoted to changing the system.

At its core, the century-old Oregon Primary is a system for the state's political parties to involve the public directly in their candidate nominating process rather than leaving it in the hands to back room dealmakers . It also is now a major election date used for a variety of measures, state and local.

Primary fixers, those supporting what are called open primaries, want to eliminate the party registration requirement for participation in the party election. Changing party affiliation patterns -- Oregonians increasingly identify themselves as independents -- and the proliferation of minor parties suggests to them that nomination of two candidates for the General Election ballot should be done in a system open to all voters.

If all this sounds a lot like American Idol, you're not alone. Republican and Democratic party leaders remain solidly opposed to the open primary system being changed constitutionally. Both parties have experimented with open primaries and both have come away unimpressed.
 
Whatever the outcome of this debate, the players in this year's contest to set state policy and spending over the next two years is going to be a  hot one. While all 60 House seats and half of the 30 state Senators are up for election, only a handful will be fully in play. The winners are in the political party that scores the most wins.
 
Most Capitol watchers agree it is unlikely there will be substantial changes in control of either legislative chamber. The Senate will stay Democratic, and the math favors continued Republican control of the House. Control means that majority party members in each chamber select the leadership -- the President of the Senate and Speaker of the House. Sen. Peter Courtney, a Democrat representing Salem, Gervais and Woodburn, seems assured of re-election to his post. Speaker Karen Minnis, Republican from east Multnomah County, will most likely hold her post. On an individual basis, Courtney has only token opposition. Minnis is facing a statewide challenge in her seat being financed by the House Democrratic Caucus and gay rights groups energized by her opposition to a gay marriage/civil union bill she blocked last Session. She and her predecessor, husband John Minnis, have faced strong challenges before and from the same groups. Over twenty years the couple have won handily in the largely Democratic District.
 
There really are only a few Primary races that will cloud the political mirror.
 
In the Senate, Republicans will be watching the race in Senate District 13, which runs from Hillsboro to Keizer. This one pits conservatives Sen. Charles Starr against Larry George, the son of fellow Republican Gary George. The George challenge is based on the tenuous proposition that Sen. Starr is too liberal for the district. The younger George bases his argument on Starr's vote for a couple of proposed taxes in the 2003 Session designed to bail out Oregon's K-12 education system that was in a freefall along with the rest of the state's income supported General Fund programs. George also comes to the race with a personal electoral success in the last election where he played a central role in passage of the anti-land use Measure 37.
 
There also is a heated Democratic Primary race in Senate District 17. Rep. Brad Avakian, a Portland attorney, is the favorite to succeed Charlie Ringo, who took his leave in a swirl of self-serving condemnation of his colleagues as too partisan.
 
Democrats in Senate District 24, a part of Portland that will elect a Republican about the same time Oregonians vote in a sales tax, will choose the replacement for retiring Sen. Frank Shields between Jesse Cornett and Rod Monroe. Monroe, Shields's favorite in the race, is an ex-state Senator with a solid track record from the 70's and 80's has also been a Metro Council and member of the Mt. Hood Community College Board. Cornett is a lobbyist for Secretary of State Bill Bradbury. Cornett is best known by K-12 advocates for his unsuccessful effort to pass a law mandating audits of school districts by his boss.
 
On the House side, there aren't many more interesting Primary races: 
  • House District 27 (Washington County) -- Democrats Tobias Read, a Nike middle manager and former Salem politico best know for his association with former Rep. and Willamette University President Brian Johnston, and Mike Bohan, a systems engineer and Washington County Democratic Party activist. The Democrat will win the General.
  • House District 44 (Multnomah County)-- Democrats Tina Kotek, a children's rights activist, Jim Robison, administrator of the local soil and water conservation district, and Mark Kirchmeier, Director of Media Relations at the University of Portland. The winner here will take the seat in January.
  • House District 46 (Multnomah County -- Suffice it to say there are five Democrats including two lobbyists, a health activist and a magazine publisher. All have records of Democratic and community activism and whoever wins the Primary wins the seat.
That's about it for interesting races where you might need to learn the winner's name before the General Election. And that's where the action will be after the Primary. We'll take a look at those races later.
 
If you are interested in a look at all of the races district by district here are the House and Senate primary lineups:
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This page was last updated on Monday, May 15, 2006 .