Commentary

Legislators resist electoral reforms in Oregon at their peril in the future

One way to sense the mood of voters is to look at initiatives being proposed – and Oregon has several impacting elections

January 7, 2022 7:57 am

A sign on a desk in the House Chamber at the Oregon State Capitol on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

If you want to get a sense of emerging political issues, the kind that legislatures initially ignore and later scramble to get ahead of, a good place to start is to look at the ballot initiatives filed for the next statewide election in Oregon.

There are 48 of these “prospective initiatives” filed for 2022. No more than a handful are likely to qualify for the ballot. But, when we look at these filings from year to year, we get a sense of what’s bubbling under the surface.

This year, the most forward-looking proposals I find on the Secretary of State’s initiative log would overhaul the mechanisms of our democracy – how we design our electoral districts, regulate the big money that flows to candidates and conduct our elections.

All of these proposals have broad appeal, from older voters who are tired of the extremes of both major political parties to a younger generation increasingly frustrated with the failure of their representatives to heed their voices and protect the health of the planet.

In this regard, the views of young voters are my greatest concern.

Pollsters now report that they are less optimistic than their parents, a troubling finding that belies a longstanding pattern of hopefulness among young adults. Relatedly, the young are also more critical of the condition of our democracy than any other cohort of our citizenry.

To give credence to their views is to take seriously the need for major changes in how we govern ourselves in the future.

The electoral reforms drafted for the 2022 ballot reflect long-simmering reactions to the two major ills of our polity – excessive partisanship in the selection of our representatives and extensive veto power vested in special interests. These factors combine to limit the range of responses to common problems and block compromise, leading to the ever-worsening frustration over unresolved issues on which the major parties thrive.

When governments fail to protect the safety and wellbeing of their citizens, from the recent spike in crime rates in our cities to the more frequent disruptions of a changing climate across our lands, they lose the trust of their people. As a result, many Americans feel more like subjects than citizens.

Restoring the agency of citizenship will take more than expanding civics classes in our schools. What the electoral reformers are saying, in their various proposals, is that we need to overhaul our institutions and open up our elections in order to regain both the participation and consent of the governed.

Last year, Democrats in the Oregon legislature adopted a redistricting plan that narrows the field of competitive House seats. There are more deep blue districts and more deep red ones. This affects more than head counts in the House and Senate. It means that the candidates who emerge from their party primaries will likely be more to the left and the right, more ready to fight for their teams and less willing to reach across the aisle.

In response, one reformer has filed an initiative to undo those changes and draw new, more representative districts (Initiative Petition 34). Another is again proposing open primaries (IP 39), which would give unaffiliated voters a long-denied say in selecting the candidates who advance to general elections. Still others are proposing ranked choice voting (IP40) as a way to give voters more choices and encourage politicians to broaden their appeal across the political spectrum.

Meanwhile, campaign finance advocates who succeeded in establishing campaign contribution limits in the safely blue precincts of Multnomah County and Portland have been stymied by Democrats in the legislature from extending these reforms to the more contested territory of state elections. So, these advocates recently filed multiple measures to do just that to loosen the holds that special interests have over state policy and governance (IP 43-48).

I’m not predicting that any of these measures will make it to the ballot this year. But they are likely to accelerate interest in reforms of this kind in the media and among the public.

As more young voters and the disaffected see a path to better ways of governing ourselves, they’ll demand changes of the kind we find on the 2022 initiative log. And, as happened many times before in Oregon’s long history of innovation birthed by ballot initiatives, legislators will start taking up these reforms or be run over by them.

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Tim Nesbitt

Tim Nesbitt, a former union leader in Oregon, served as an advisor to Governors Ted Kulongoski and John Kitzhaber and later helped to design Measure 98 in 2016, which provided extra, targeted funding for Oregon’s high schools.

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