by Blair Bobier, co-founder Pacific Green Party
The “Top Two” election system, with its potentially devastating effects for Greens and other independent political parties, has been defeated at the statewide level for the second time in six years in Oregon.
What is ‘Top Two’?
In a Top Two or “Jungle Primary” system, party primaries are eliminated, and all candidates from all parties run against each other in a single “jungle” primary. All voters regardless of political affiliation may vote for any candidate. But only the top two vote-getters advance to the November general election, regardless of party—and both candidates can even be from the same political party. Voters in those races then have the “choice” of choosing between two Democrats or two Republicans. Top Two has a devastating effect on smaller parties. In California and Washington, since Top Two has been in place, Greens have never been on the General Election ballot for a statewide office.
Oregon’s Measure 90
In November 2014, Oregon voters soundly defeated Ballot Measure 90, a Top Two proposal backed by billionaires Michael Bloomberg and John Arnold (an Enron energy profiteer) by a margin of 68 percent—32 percent. The “no” vote for this measure received more votes than any other ballot measure or candidate in the 2014 general election in Oregon and—in a rarity in this somewhat ideologically polarized state—lost in each of Oregon’s 36 counties, whether urban or rural, ‘red’ or ‘blue’.
To some extent, the election was a repeat Top Two defeat in Oregon. In 2008, as Measure 65, it also lost by a 2-1 margin. This time however, supporters had significantly more financial backing, as well as the support of most of the state’s major newspapers.
The Pacific Green Party of Oregon, one of the country’s oldest Green parties, took an active role in opposing Top Two. Seth Woolley, a Portland activist and two-time candidate for Secretary of State, and Blair Bobier, one of the founders of the party, spearheaded the Greens’ efforts. Woolley created and maintained a website, saveoregonsdemocracy.org, while Bobier penned op-eds for The Oregonian, the most widely circulated newspaper in the Northwest, and the Eugene Weekly, which serves Oregon’s second largest city.
Oregonians value the contributions Greens and other independent political parties have made in Oregon politics and they didn’t want to see independent voices eliminated from the ballot
Greens argued that Top Two would have severely restricted voters’ choices by eliminating independent candidates from the November election; and would greatly restrict the scope and nature of the political debate, once the primary was over and the only remaining candidates (Democrats and Republicans) were from a narrow portion of the political spectrum. Greens also pointed out the anti-democratic flaws inherent in Top Two, and how it could frustrate the will of the voters, such as in 2012 in California’s 31st Congressional District when four Democratic candidates in this heavily Democratic district “split the vote,” sending two Republicans to the General Election and ultimately one to Congress.
Woolley and Bobier also worked in cooperation with a coalition, Protect Our Vote, which was organized by Democratic Party front groups, and the Progressive Party, a Green-like political party that had been organized in 2008 solely to support Ralph Nader’s presidential run. Bobier and Woolley, along with their Progressive Party colleagues, gave numerous media interviews in a variety of formats, used social media, and drafted and distributed press releases to get the word out.
Despite all efforts, it is still a bit of a mystery as to why Top Two has fared so poorly in Oregon. Although both of the establishment parties and most of the state’s smaller parties opposed it each time, that alone would not explain its resounding defeat—twice.
Part of the explanation could lie in the fact that Oregonians tend to vote “no” on Measures they’re unsure about—as in, “if ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
It could also be that Oregonians not only responded to the grassroots efforts of the Pacific Green Party and other activists working to defeat Top Two, but that Oregonians value the contributions Greens and other independent political parties have made in Oregon politics and they didn’t want to see independent voices eliminated from the ballot—something that the Official Ballot Summary made clear was very possible under Top Two. Oregonians have elected a Green judge as well as numerous Green city councilors; and Greens in Oregon are active and visible on issues including climate change, health care, living wages and —key to this campaign—election reform.
It could also be that Oregonians really, really don’t like Top Two, nor out-of-state billionaires trying to manipulate the democratic process. The Greens and their Progressive Party colleagues issued a number of joint press releases specifically focused on the shadowy funding of Top Two in Oregon. Billionaires Michael Bloomberg and John Arnold dumped $4.63 million into Top Two coffers; astronomical amounts for an Oregon ballot measure election. Arnold, the Enron energy profiteer, took an $8 million bonus from Enron in 2001; the day before it went bankrupt. Although the Koch Brothers did not contribute directly to Top Two, they contributed $25,000 to a PAC run by Associated Oregon Industries, which in turn, contributed to Top Two. The millions that these billionaires spent went for naught. For the second time in six years, Oregonians decisively defeated Top Two.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Top Two is detrimental to the democratic process, but there’s no question that existing winner-take-all elections are also far from ideal—and Oregon Greens are hard at work trying to change them. At the request of the Greens, Democratic legislators will introduce an Instant Runoff Voting bill in the upcoming session of the Oregon legislature, on which Greens will take the lead. Independently, Greens are likely to file a ballot initiative to establish IRV elections in at least one county in Oregon, which would set the stage for further use of this innovative reform