Oregon's Independent Party Grows And Grows: Where It Stops, Nobody Knows

Everyone Counts running the first ever online election for an Oregon political party


Published on kuow.org

An online election. So what, right? We get links to polls and surveys all the time in our email or on Facebook. A few clicks later and we've let the world know our favorite ice cream flavor or which Bachelorette we'd like to run for President in 2012. But would you trust an internet vote to select an actual candidate for office? Supporters say they have a way to ensure a secure online election.

Lori Steele: "Not something like SurveyMonkey."

That's Lori Steele, the CEO of Everyone Counts. It's a California–based high–tech voting company that —

Lori Steele: "— provides authentication, provides encryption, provides multiple layers of security and reliability compared to checking the box on something on your email."

Steele's company is running the first ever online election for an Oregon political party. And it's a major step for a party that didn't even exist just a few years ago. Independent Party Chair Linda Williams says membership exploded once the party's name started showing up on motor–voter forms.

Linda Williams: "About 500 a month."

That's a lot for a minor party. It didn't take long for it to become bigger than all the other minor parties in Oregon — combined.

Linda Williams: "We were delighted."

But soon delight turned to reality.

Linda Williams: "Then you get the sense of the responsibilities."

As the membership grew, so did the number of unanswered questions.

Linda Williams: "How are we going to actually make this work?"

For one thing, Williams and the handful of other Independent Party leaders figured they needed to come up with a way of selecting candidates. Major parties — you know, Democrats and Republicans — hold their primaries through the well–established vote–by–mail system funded by the state. Minor parties typically nominate their candidates at a convention or some other gathering of party insiders. But Independent Party leaders wanted something bigger, some way to reflect the broad range of opinion among its members. So, the online election was born. But selecting candidates is only part of the equation. Remember this?

Linda Williams: "Then you get the sense of the responsibilities."

Well, one of those responsibilities — a pretty obvious one, actually — is figuring out what the party stands for, anyway. But a political party made up of independent voters is something of an inherent contradiction, kind of like an anarchists' convention. There's no iconic personality at its heart. No Ross Perot, no Ralph Nader, no Jesse "The Body" Ventura. Chair Linda Williams says at first the Independent Party of Oregon was there simply to offer an alternative to Democrats and Republicans. More recently, it advocated for changes to election law. But it lacks the same kind of broad–based platform that major parties have. And that's led critics to say the party isn't ready for the big time just yet. KC Hanson is chair of the Multnomah County Democrats.

KC Hanson: "The Independent Party seems to say, 'Oh we're progressive, but we just don't like anybody anymore.' That's not a party."

Hanson and many others suspect the Independent Party's rapid growth is fueled to a large extent by people who sign up thinking they're not actually joining any party at all. That's what happened to Independent Party member David Ackerman of White City, Oregon.

David Ackerman: "I'm from California and I just came here to Oregon. And I didn't realize it was an actual Independent Party. I thought they were just talking about independent voters."

Shari Gerttula of Toledo, Oregon, says she did sign up for the Independent Party on purpose. She says she grew weary of being a Republican and wasn't especially fond of Democrats, either. But Gerttula says it was the name that attracted her, not the party's position on any issues. In fact, she doesn't know what those positions are.

Shari Gerttula: "I have not explored that as much as I'd like to. I plan to, next election. I'd like to be ready for that. But I haven't now."

Independent Party chair Linda Williams downplays suggestions that many party members signed up by accident. But she concedes it has happened.

Linda Williams: "Inevitably, when you deal with thousands of people, hundreds of thousands signing up to vote, some people will make mistakes, will want to correct them, were in some way confused by the presentation."

Whether they signed up on purpose or not, Independent Party members have until the end of this month to choose among candidates for governor, Congress and the Oregon Legislature. There's a twist, though. The vast majority of candidates seeking the Independent Party nomination are actually Democrats and Republicans. They hope to have the Independent Party listed alongside their existing party affiliation on the November ballot.

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