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Citizen panel weighs in against top-two primary

Measure 90 one of two undergoing review.


When Edna Campbell of Jefferson joined 19 other voters for a study this week, she had a definite opinion on Measure 90, which would change Oregon’s 110-year-old primary election system.

“I came in all for it,” she said. “Why not? It sounds like a good idea.”

Measure 90 on the Nov. 4 ballot would allow the top two finishers in a primary, regardless of party affiliation, to advance to the general election. Under the current system, only registered Democrats can choose Democratic nominees, and registered Republicans the same.

Unaffiliated voters, who have been growing as a share of Oregon’s electorate, can cast ballots only if they affiliate with parties or if the parties open their primaries — which has been rare in the past 25 years.

But after intensive study during the past few days — conducted as part of the Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review — Campbell was among the 14 who sided with the opposition to Measure 90.

Citizen reviews of selected ballot measures date back to 2010. Panels are chosen at random to reflect the diversity of Oregon voters. In addition to taking sides, panels come up with findings that are listed in the state voters pamphlet and online voter guide.

William Curtis of Portland, another panel member, would not say whether he was in the opposition or was one of the five who favored Measure 90. But he says the review process helped him make up his mind.

“I came in here and said, gee, what is this about?” he said. “I felt a bit alienated at first, but as we got into it, I started to pick up the lingo.

“Every time I listened to the proposers and opponents, I was swayed to the person who was speaking, so I was teetering. But finally, I found my values and made a fair decision. I can’t wait to vote in November.”

The panel vote Wednesday was 14-5; one member was excused for medical reasons.

Opponents heartened

Measure 90 opponents, predictably, welcomed the panel's outcome.

“Today’s findings show that Oregonians believe we should have meaningful choices at the ballot when it matters most, in the general election,” says Sara Logue, spokeswoman for the Protect Our Vote coalition, which includes the Democratic and Republican parties.

“All voters in fall elections should have the ability to vote for the candidates that best represent their values.”

Logue was among those who appeared before the panel on Measure 90. So did its chief sponsor, Jim Kelly, an Eastern Oregon rancher and founder of Portland’s Rejuvenation Inc., who said it would open primaries to a growing number of Oregon voters choosing not to affiliate with any party.

California and Washington have instituted top-two primaries in recent years.

Oregon voters rejected a similar measure in 2008.

In past cycles, voters were asked by Healthy Democracy, the nonprofit organization that conducts the review process, to evaluate ballot measures creating state-licensed dispensaries for medical marijuana, increasing minimum prison sentences for repeat sex offenders, authorizing private casinos, and earmarking excess corporate income taxes for schools.

A different issue

Katie Knobloch, who has been part of independent evaluations of Oregon citizen initiative reviews in 2010 and 2012, says this measure is different because it involves something more abstract to most voters — how candidates are nominated and elected.

“But I think it’s an interesting issue because of the trade-offs,” says Knobloch, who’s a communications professor at Colorado State University and associate director of its Center for Public Deliberation.

“This is not an issue where one side has all the facts on its side, so this process helped the panelists figure out that both sides have valid arguments.”

Unlike previous cycles, each of this year’s panels has three and a half days to come up with findings, instead of a full week. But they also hear proponents and opponents side by side; previously, each side made separate pitches to the panels.

“I think it gave panelists a better understanding of the campaigns and allowed them to hone in on where the real differences lie,” Knobloch says.

Campbell and Curtis, the two panelists interviewed, say they benefited from hearing the two sides together — even though sometimes the sides argued among themselves instead of responding to the panelists.

“We got to talk with people who have a passion on one side or the other,” Campbell says. “But the process was amazingly unbiased, and drew a lot of energy from the moderators and staff as well as participants.”

Other states join

Oregon was the first state to conduct citizen initiative reviews, but Arizona and Colorado will do so this year.

Colorado will weigh in on a measure similar to Oregon’s Measure 92, which would require labeling of genetically modified organisms in food. A separate Oregon panel began Thursday to consider the pros and cons of Measure 92.

“People are interested in finding ways to have citizens become more actively engaged in the political process, and have it be an effective and informed engagement,” Knobloch says. “The Citizens Initiative Review process is an opportunity for citizens to be involved in politics.”

Just as important as the analyses of the ballot measures is how different voters work together.

“One thing I found surprising is how willing they were to cooperate,” says Curtis, one of the panelists. “They more we spent time together discussing the issue, the more we developed an acquaintanceship with one another despite our differences. We all learned to respect one another.”

To read the Citizens’ Initiative Review of Measure 90, its key findings and statements of support and opposition, click on the link below:

healthydemocracy.org/citizens-initiative-review/oregon/measure-90-final/

peterwong@PortlandTribune.com

(503) 385-4899

twitter.com/capitolwong