Thursday, March 15, 2007

HB 2084: Could it Give OR 1st-in-Nation Primary Balloting?

One part of party politics that really kind of bores me is the meta--platform debates, party leadership elections, etc. So I've only been peripherally aware of the great struggle among state parties and the national DNC over which primaries and caucuses go first next year, even though the ramifications could be pivotal in deciding races.

But thank goodness some people are thinking about it, even busy people like Jesse Cornett. I was watching O-Span a couple nights ago, listening to the testimony on HB 2084 in the Elections Committee. (You can listen to it if you like, by clicking here {.ram file}. I hadn't heard of the bill yet, but it apparently allowed (among other electoral reforms) the Secretary of State to set the date of primaries during presidential election years. The thinking behind giving the SoS flexibility was using some kind of rotating regional primary system, where each cycle the regions moved through the political calendar. That would allow every state the opportunity to define the early races, where it seems with each election the nomination becomes set on an earlier date.

I might have dozed off there if I hadn't heard Cornett called to the witness panel. He supported 2084, but only as a mechanism to a much more ambitious, serendipitous and felicitious plan:
Imagine living in a state where presidential primaries matter. It hasn't happened in Oregon since 1968 - but it can in 2008. There is no reason that Oregon shouldn’t return to what Tom McCall allegedly used to refer to as “Oregon’s second largest economy every four years.”

If we go with business as usual, we'll take a pass on getting any of the campaigns, their business, and ability to engage our electorate until Labor Day just like every other year. Oregonians will take a pass on helping to choose who our nation's presidential nominees will be… yet again. Further, Oregon cannot bank on being seen as a swing state in 2008 and any of the campaign activity that accompanies that status in the fall.

If we designate February 5th as the Presidential Selection Primary in Oregon, our ballots will go out approximately 20 days earlier. This is what makes us different from every other state who moves to February 5th. By the time Oregonians get their ballots, Iowa's Democratic Caucus will be barely in the rearview mirror. Because of our unique system of vote by mail, no other state and not even the Republicans in Iowa will have had their primary or caucus by then. And no other state can. In fact, here's how that January schedule would look:

14: Iowa Democratic Caucus; 16: Oregon ballots mailed; 19: Nevada Democratic Caucus; 21: Iowa Republican Caucus; 22: New Hampshire Primary; 29: South Carolina Democratic Primary

Who won't like this plan? New Hampshire, Nevada, Iowa, academics who fear the effects of front-loading, and the national parties, that’s who. In fact, New Hampshire claims that by their state law, they must hold the first primary and may be tempted to move their primary even early. The DNC has threatened to withhold delegates if they do so. But, the federal courts have ruled that Election Day is Election Day. Oregon's date would be February 5th, not when we mail our ballots.
How can you not love that? By being foresighted and lucky enough to ballot entirely by mail, Oregon could join a Feb 5th mega-primary in which candidates can literally campaign for votes here, three weeks before any other primary and only after the Iowa caucus by a couple days.

There were some looks of interest among the panel, and decent questions. There would be a cost to having a separate primary from the traditional May primary, but of course that would be true with any regional format in which our "slot" would occur before then. The alternative would be to allow other measures, bond items and the like on the February primary to offer greater flexibility, particularly for tax issue s and those needing 50% participation to qualify for double-majority votes. Speaking of the regional cycle idea, Cornett rightly points out that it is great theory but requires universal participation--and at this juncture Iowa and New Hampshire are holding onto their positions for dear life.

Another good question was whether California's nearly-sure entry into the Feb 5th sweepstakes wouldn't suck all the air out of campaigning elsewhere in the country, much less Oregon. Cornett's smart response was to the contrary: what better staging area for the assault on Cali, than the state where ballots are actively being cast the three weeks before D-Day on the Bay? There would be a natural inclination to visit Oregon and campaign heavily, particularly on an advertising basis. It's an ugly business, but local TV stations and Comcast are people too (or so the Supreme Court claims the Constitution says they are), and they can use the business.

This is a particularly smart amendment idea for the Democrats, who are correctly beginning to lean towards building a new majority presence in the West, starting emphatically with their choice of Denver for the convention, and in general their growing support of, and results from, the Western states where revulsion for Republicans nonetheless masks a libertarian conservative streak. But if the DNC will allow it--and Cornett thinks there's legal precedent and smart politics on our side--it would be fitting under current conditions to highlight Oregon as an example of progressive policy and planning in action. It's a place to be proud of, and despite a bluing trend of late it's a state that has always sent rational, moderate leaders of both parties. Why not?

The word from the dome is that there are a couple of powerful people that would like to see this happen, no known opposition--and a whole lot of indifference otherwise. One wrinkle in all this is that Cornett's election as Vice-Chair of the Democratic Party of Oregon this past weekend now puts his support for a Feb 5th date into the context of speaking for the party, and I don't think the party is there yet, officially. So the supportive legislators will have to make this happen themselves, without a real public champion. A work session is scheduled for next Wednesday, and hopefully at that time the bill will get Jesse's proposal folded into it. We'll keep you posted on its progress, but if you like the idea of Oregon doing the first primary balloting of the Presidential race, you might try emailing these folks:

Diane Rosenbaum, Chair
Vicki Berger, Vice-Chair
Peter Buckley, Vice-Chair
Sal Esquivel
Dave Hunt
Arnie Roblan
Kim Thatcher

Apologies for not having a snazzy spammer system that will let you rant to your heart's content like the ORGOP; you'll just have to deal.

Update, 11AM--
The Daily Astorian came out in support of a Feb 5th primary a few days ago as well. Here's their editorial.