Consider open primaries

By Baker City Herald Editorial Board January 21, 2014 01:53 pm

A Union County group thinks all voters in that county should be able to choose among county commission candidates in primary elections.

This is an idea worth considering in Baker County as well.

Both Baker and Union counties are among a minority of Oregon counties — 16 of 36 — where county commissioners are partisan offices.

We don’t mind that, per se.

But here’s the problem: Oregon also has a “closed” primary system. That means only registered Republicans are allowed to vote for Republican candidates in primaries, and the same with Democrats. Non-affiliated voters, or those registered as independents or with other parties, don’t vote at all.

Although the deadline to register as a candidate isn’t until early March for the two Baker County commissioner positions up for election this year, all four current candidates, two for each position, are Republicans.

Although there are more registered Republicans in the county than any other party or affiliation, even the GOP lacks a majority, at 46 percent of the county’s 10,023 voters.

Unless something changes, in effect fewer than half of the county’s voters will decide, in the May 20 primary, who wins those two races (there will still be a general election in November, but unless a Democrat registers, the May primary will be the de facto general election.)

Nothing’s preventing Democratic candidates from competing, of course.

But we don’t believe county offices need to be partisan races. So long as they remain so, and Oregon retains its closed primary status, then Baker County will continue to have its top county officials chosen by a minority of the electorate.

By making the county commission seats nonpartisan, Baker County not only would increase voter turnout for primary elections, but candidates would have to lay out their qualifications for all voters, not only those registered with a particular party.

Union County voters probably will decide this May whether to make their county races nonpartisan, starting in 2016. Baker County would benefit from making the same change.