As is true across the state, Eastern Oregon is home to a sizable bloc of nonaffiliated voters.
In fact, if gathered into a unified group, these voters would make up the second largest party in the state after Democrats. They would be the second largest party in Eastern Oregon after Republicans.
It doesn’t take a political scientist to figure out how this came to be. Since the Motor Voter law began in January 2016, hundreds of thousands of people have been automatically registered as voters after receiving or renewing a driver’s license. Unless they specify at that time they’d like to register with a particular party, they’re marked nonaffiliated, as more than 330,000 people have since December of 2015.
It also doesn’t take much political savvy to understand the potential of unleashing the power of these voters (32 percent of the voters in the state, just behind the Democrats’ 35 percent) in the primaries, where for now they are mostly stuck on the sidelines.
One idea to get them off the bench is Senate Bill 225, crafted by Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, a Republican, and Alan Zundel, who in 2016 ran against Richardson as the Pacific Green Party candidate. It would allow candidates to run as nonaffiliated, with the nearly 900,000 voters selecting a candidate to go on the November ballot.
We applaud the attempt to bring these voters into the democratic fold. Increasing the number of voters in Oregon has been a top priority, and getting them engaged in the democratic process is the next step.
However, we would urge caution as to whether SB 225 is the best step forward.
The very nature of how a voter comes to be nonaffiliated lends perspective as to why this bill may not work as well as its proponents hope.
The bill attempts to corral a bloc of voters who either don’t want or have chose not to identify with any ideological restraints. By creating a nonaffiliated primary, the bill is pushing this group toward the establishment of a “single-voice” which takes compromise and a majority-minority dynamic. Essentially, it limits a bloc of voters with restraints when the thing that drives them is the resistance to restraints in the first place.
Nonaffiliated is a default position. It means the voter is either not swayed by any party platform, or not interested enough to select one. Their vote is as good as their neighbor’s in the general election, but they don’t have a significant hand in deciding who gets there.
As easy as it is to paint the state in red and blue, on a personal level most of us are some shade of purple. Very few, we would wager, buy 100 percent into their party of choice, and especially not into every person elected to represent the party.
The good news is, Oregon is a good state in which to be purple, especially when it comes to voting. Switching political parties is a piece of cake. Go on the Secretary of State’s website, log-in with your driver’s license and select which party you’d like to join. There are no dues, no meetings, no papers to sign. A nonaffiliated voter can effectively play the part of free agent, paying attention to primary campaigns and deciding which race they’d like to be heard in.
We’re not so worried about the major parties losing their influence, or a “nonaffiliated” candidate shaking up a general election. The red vs. blue dynamic could use a bit of a shuffle.
But we’d rather see it in the form of a more organically engaged voting public.