Commentary

At a time of high polarization, there’s still activity among the small parties

December 13, 2023 5:45 am
An election sign.

Oregon has six small parties with thousands of members, including the Independent Party, which is the biggest. And in March, the Secretary of State's Office approved the No Label Party to put candidates on the ballot though it has no registered members yet. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

In March, a new organization was added to the list of small political parties qualified to appear on the Oregon ballot: the No Labels Party. Oregon was the third state nationally to accept its application, after Colorado and Arizona.

Whether next year a No Labels’ candidate will actually appear on the ballot – or make much difference – remains an open question. The group is aimed solely at presidential politics and doesn’t need an in-state organization. As of November, the Oregon Secretary of State’s office reported that it had about 1,500 registered voters in the state. 

Other smaller parties have more. In Oregon, the Constitution, the Independent, the Libertarian, the Pacific Green (affiliated with the Green Party of the United States), the Progressive and Working Families parties all have thousands of registrants. 

The Independent Party of Oregon is distinct from the others, not as a matter of law but simply size: It has far more registered members than all the other smaller parties put together, and has been legally classified as a major party. It’s not really a “small” party. 

America’s politics, and Oregon’s, is highly polarized. In the 2020 presidential election, more than 2,374,320 votes were cast in the state for president; all but 75,490 (3.2%) went to either Democrat Joe Biden or Republican Donald Trump. 

In 2022, when Betsy Johnson’s well-organized and strongly-financed campaign emerged for governor, she wound up in a very distant third place. 

In addition to these organized groups, there are also “other” registrants, which are not among the “nonaffiliated” – which is a separate category – but presumably members of other parties which don’t have ballot status in Oregon. State records do not break down who these somewhat mysterious people are. Their numbers have declined a little in recent years but are substantial; at about 15,690, they account for more voters than any of the small parties but the Libertarians.

Still, by themselves Oregon’s small parties do generate support, sometimes shifting levels of support, and they can matter in who among large-party candidates prevails and by how much.

Oregon is among the states allowing cross-party endorsement voting, in which more than one party can nominate a candidate – and the smaller parties often do. (The process is related to, but distinctive from the true “fusion” system used in New York state.) 

The results show up in many places on Oregon voter guides where partisan offices appear. In 2022, for example, Ron Wyden was nominated for the Senate by not only his own Democratic Party but also in the Independent Party of Oregon. The Republican nominee, Jo Rae Perkins, also was nominated by the Constitution Party. The Pacific Green and Progressive parties, meantime, offered their own nominees. 

There have been five consistent small parties in Oregon – aside from the Independent Party of Oregon which has grown larger over the years – which are the  Constitution, Libertarian, Pacific Green, Progressive and Working Families parties.

It would be fair to group the latter three  – as left of the Democratic Party. In 2023, they accounted for 19,795 voters.

The Constitution Party has been situated to the right, or near the right flank, of the Republican Party; it’s the only small party clearly on the right and has about 3,830 registered voters. 

The Libertarian Party may help boost the small-party registration on the right. It takes some elements from both ideological sides – it famously calls for less government and disagrees with a number of policies of both major policies – but in recent decades has seemed to draw more from the right than from the left. Its party registration in October was 20,484.

Taken together, the right may be losing a few more voters to small parties than are the Democrats, though the gap isn’t large. 

Of the three left-leaning parties, the Pacific Green and the Working Families parties are the larger, with 8,000 or more registrants each in recent years, while the Progressive Party has been much smaller. But the trend lines have favored the Progressives. In 2019 it had about 2,380 registrants but four years later increased their number, by about half, to 3,635.

During that same time, both the Pacific Green’s and the Working Families’ numbers fell. The PGs declined from 8,700 in 2019 to 7,850 (in 2023), and the WFs from 9,720 in 2019 to 8,310 in 2023. That may reflect some movement from those parties to the Progressives, for reasons that are unclear. 

Does all of this, taken together, much influence the outcome of partisan elections statewide? Probably not in most cases, unless the race becomes very close, coming down to a few thousand votes, and then decisions about cross-endorsing as opposed to running a separate candidacy could matter. 

Don’t say it doesn’t matter, though, nor No Labels either even if it lacks registrants. In 2022, two congressional seats were decided by a couple of percentage points. At that level, what the small parties do can make a difference. 

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Randy Stapilus

Randy Stapilus has researched and written about Northwest politics and issues since 1976 for a long list of newspapers and other publications. A former newspaper reporter and editor, and more recently an author and book publisher, he lives in Carlton.

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