Right now, a group of locals is spearheading an effort to try to move the races for the Deschutes County Board of Commissioners from partisan to non-partisan. This has been a topic of conversation since at least last year, when then-Democratic candidate Phil Chang—now a county commissioner—said he was in favor of the switch. While the commission ultimately voted against putting the idea on the ballot because of the costs involved, a group of citizens is picking up where they left off.
The group needs roughly 9,000 signatures to get the initiative on an upcoming ballot. Locals should consider signing the petition.
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Deschutes County has a more balanced electorate than other counties in the state, which tend to lean more heavily blue or heavily red. Here, roughly 40% of voters are not affiliated with any party, and the remaining percentages are closely split between Republican and Democrat. In Oregon's primary system, only voters of a particular party can vote in the primary—meaning here in our county, roughly 40% of voters don't get a say in that initial run.
As we have seen in some recent county elections, that can lead to parties sending some of the most extreme members of their parties forward to the general election. When Republican Patti Adair—who ran largely on an anti-marijuana platform—ran in the Republican primary, she narrowly beat out a far less ideological candidate.
As we have seen in the most recent non-partisan elections for the Bend-La Pine Schools board, ideology can creep into even a non-partisan race. In the case of the recent May elections, it meant that local voters were required to pay more attention and to examine the actions of each candidate more closely. Filling in that little bubble next to the "D" or "R" candidate is the easy route—but not necessarily the route that results in electing the most qualified person for the job. Some opponents of non-partisan races say this is a drawback—that requiring voters to do their research before voting on a candidate is too much trouble for many, and that low-turnout elections are the result. We just don't buy that.
Deschutes County is no news desert, nor is it devoid of opportunities for voters to engage and to learn about candidates during campaign season. To kowtow to the notion that "people are too ignorant to vote without a party to guide them" is a race to the bottom. What would it look like if we instead assumed the best—that people actually are capable of thinking for themselves, and will do so if not given the easy route? While turnout in the May election did not rise to the level of a presidential year, at 29.99%, it was over 10 points more than the last special election of its ilk in Deschutes County, when 18.68% of voters ushered in new school board candidates in 2015. What's more, the effort could make running for office more equitable; making the change would cut the costs of running for office in half, according to information from the signature-gatherers.
Interested parties will be stationed outside the Deschutes Public Library in downtown Bend from 3-6pm June 9 and 23 and July 7 and 21 to register voters, with "clipboarders" gathering signatures at the Bend Farmers Market on Wednesdays as well, says Mimi Alkire, chief petitioner. They'll also have a table at the Sisters Farmers Market Sundays from 11am to 2pm, Alkire told the Source. At this point, the signature-gathering process is only just that: a gathering of signatures to explore whether local voters feel strongly enough about this issue to move it forward. It's worth adding your name to the effort.