An attack from nowhere
by Editorial Board
April 19, 2011
In the course of researching one minor outrage, another is discovered. The first was a doomed-from-the-start bill to prohibit Oregon political parties from using the word “independent” in their names. The bill met with widespread ridicule and condemnation, received no supporting testimony in a hearing last week and is headed for oblivion.
The second outrage, however, lives on, and one day could prove serious. No legislator’s name was attached to the bill. House Bill 2442 was filed before the session by the House Interim Committee on Rules with no listed sponsor, and the hearing occurred at the request of no identified committee member. It was presented to Oregonians as a product of immaculate political conception.
HB 2442 was aimed directly at the Independent Party of Oregon, which has become the state’s largest third party. The bill would have forced the IPO to change its name, though it almost certainly would have been ruled unconstitutional before any change occurred. Because of its futility, the bill was a distraction. But it’s troubling that such volleys can be fired from behind a tree — and the next round of anonymous political gunfire could prove more lethal.
The IPO has been an irritant to the major parties since its formation in 2007 in response to limits on nonaffiliated candidates’ access to the ballot.
Last year the IPO, taking advantage of a new law allowing candidates to accept the nominations of more than one party, conducted a self-financed online primary, the first of its kind.
The opportunity for cross-nominations slightly dilutes the value of the major parties’ nominations. The IPO’s real offense against the major parties, however, was its popularity. Sixty-five thousand Oregonians are now registered as IPO members, and if it reaches about 100,000 the party would qualify to have its nominees chosen in primary elections, just like the Democrats and Republicans.
Some of this growth is attributable to the party’s name: A few independent-minded people who intend to register as nonaffiliated voters sign up as members of the Independent Party by mistake.
Ending such errors was the ostensible purpose of HB 2442: because the word “independent” in a party’s name “causes widespread voter confusion,” the legislation says, the word may not be used in the name of any major or minor party.
The true extent of voter confusion is debatable. Twenty percent of Oregon voters, 428,000 of them, are registered as nonaffiliated — they apparently saw that the Independent Party was a party, and opted not to join. The IPO itself makes an effort to ensure that new members understand the choice they’ve made.
Even if confusion is widespread, a bill to prevent a political party from calling itself whatever it chooses is both comical and chilling. The major parties themselves are the reason the word “independent” has political appeal. The bill violates a bedrock assumption of self-government, which is that people are capable of figuring things out for themselves. And if the Legislature can prohibit the political use of one word, it can ban others — what would be next?
HB 2442 sank under the weight of such objections. But the fact remains that it came out of nowhere. Accountability is vital in government, and no one can be held accountable for anonymous legislation. The sponsors of such legislation — all legislation — should be identified.