• illustration by Mark Markovich

Initiative Petition 55, the business-funded ballot measure looking to bring so-called "top-two" primary elections to Oregon, is pretty firmly on track for the fall ballot—thanks to nearly half a million dollars in spending and some 140,000 submitted petition signatures.

The idea goes something like this: Primary ballots in Oregon would become free-for-alls, featuring candidates from every party all at the same time. And the two top vote-getters, regardless of party, would advance to a fall runoff. In a perfect world (and our world decidedly is not), turnout would increase and gridlock would ease.

But if reformers had their way several months ago, IP 55 (written up in this week's paper) would have remained the understudy to a measure even more ambitious: Initiative Petition 54, a measure that not only would have championed a top-two primary system, but also would have let Oregonians cast votes for as many candidates as they liked.

That extra wrinkle is known as "approval voting." It was seen as an antidote to some of the potential side effects of a top-two system: vote-splitting and political chicanery. But much to the chagrin of its most vociferous backer, the people who would have been called on to fund IP 54 couldn't get past the notion that it was a step too far for most voters.

"I went to the folks who funded open primaries before," says Frohnmayer, the businessman son of a former Oregon attorney general. "They were supportive."

Some of them still are, at least privately. But the sales pitch just got to be a bit too hard.

"There was some calculus that went on," says Frohnmayer.

Jim Kelly, the Rejuvenation founder and Portland ex-pat, who's done much of the bankrolling of IP 55 from his ranch out in Grant County, confirms he was one of those early supporters—albeit with concerns that adding "approval voting" was too radical. Washington and California both have top-two systems, but neither opens their ballots to multiple markings.

"I called him up," Kelly says of Frohnmayer. "I was excited to see he was out there doing something."

Kelly also says he could see that Frohnmayer was going to need help raising money. So he agreed to line up cash, he says, leaving Frohnmayer as the chief petitioner of IP 54, so long as IP 55 was drafted alongside it as a clean top-two backup. He and Kaiser executive Brett Wilcox both dove in.

"We were really pushing 54 with 55 as the backup," Kelly says. "That was the idea at the time. I still think it's a good idea, the approval voting."

They wound up running into what Kelly described as a "brick wall." No one wanted to pay up for an initiative they weren't sure would be a winner.

"It was too weird, I guess," Kelly says. And in campaign fundraising, "if you give someone an excuse to say no, they'll say no. We told Mark we can't do this. There's no way to raise the money."

That didn't stop Frohnmayer. Though Kelly and Wilcox moved onto IP 55—which attracted bundles of business money—he stuck it out with a volunteer operation, hoping people would print signature-collection worksheets and pass them out themselves. That way, at least, people knew about it. And maybe, if enough people heard about "approval voting," Frohnmayer says, the legislature might amend IP 55 once and if voters approve it.

Without it, he says, elections won't look all that much different under a top-two system. Voters will still pick the most "electable" candidate—meaning the candidate with the most money and institutional support. And that will deter people, in turn, from ever seeking out office. In California, a couple of years ago, four Democrats in a Democratic district split the vote so thoroughly that two Republicans advanced. The lesson was not to run so many candidates, Frohnmayer says—not exactly a healthy recipe for a participatory democracy.

He insists the math would work better—for lesser candidates and minor parties—if voters can choose electable candidates as well as the candidates they actually deeply believe in.

And without all that, he thinks turnout will remain low—a problem that's dogged California and Washington, despite the hopes of top-two backers.

"You can finally vote on the candidate, not on which party stronghold the candidate calls home," he says.

Representatives of smaller parties remain deeply skeptical. Seth Woolley, local treasurer for the Pacific Green Party of Oregon says the math will still favor "electable" candidates, since everyone will be choosing those candidates as a hedge against their personal choices.

"The top two candidates are guaranteed to represent the majority party in their area," Woolley says.

It's all moot anyway. The July 3 deadline to turn in signatures and qualify for the fall ballot has come and gone.

"The business community is not funding it," Frohnmayer says. "They have chosen a system that maintains and magnifies the vote-splitting."