- Associated Press - Friday, October 17, 2014

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - A Houston billionaire who has given $1.5 million in support of a ballot measure to change Oregon’s primary election system says the proposed format is one of the few solutions to lessening dysfunction in Washington, D.C.

John Arnold, 40, said he’d like the proposed “top-two” system to spread nationally as a way to reduce the influence of political insiders and highly partisan voters. His contributions to the group Open Primaries make him the largest donor of the campaign. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has given $1.25 million directly to the “Yes on 90” campaign.

“I think it’s the one solution that has theoretical merit,” said Arnold, a self-described policy wonk. “It can be practically enacted and it’s shown anecdotal evidence of working.”

Arnold said he donated to the Oregon effort simply because it’s on the ballot. His home state does not have a signature-driven initiative process.

“The only way to get an initiative on the ballot in Texas is if it’s approved by the state Legislature,” he said. “Top two, because it’s a threat to the established political parties, would never get passed by the state Legislature.”

If Measure 90 is approved, all candidates would appear on a primary ballot sent to all voters. The top two finishers would advance to the November election, even if from the same party.

Oregonians soundly rejected a similar measure in 2008, but neighboring California and Washington state both use the top-two system.

Supporters contend it’s only fair to allow independent voters to have a say in who advances to the general election. They also think moderate candidates would have a better chance of being elected because Republicans and Democrats would need to broaden their appeal beyond their primary bases.

The Republican and Democratic parties oppose Measure 90 as do some minor political parties, Oregon Right to Life and labor unions.

Arnold made his fortune as a natural gas trader, first at Enron and then as a hedge fund manager. He retired in his late 30s to focus on charitable giving and political causes. Some of those causes - charter schools and public employee pensions - have made him the enemy of labor unions.

Most of the money to defeat the measure has come from unions. Primary voters tend to be older, wealthier and less diverse than those who vote in November. The “No on 90” campaign says Arnold and other well-heeled Measure 90 donors want those voters to narrow the field.

Oregon Right to Life has said supporters of the top-two system want to eliminate Republican primaries because they are often won by candidates who oppose abortion rights. Arnold acknowledged that he’s given to Planned Parenthood and the Center for Reproductive Rights.

Arnold denied supporting open primaries as a way to elect politicians who share all his views.

“There’s no ulterior motive here,” Arnold said, adding: “This is about: ‘Do the politicians represent the whole electorate or a narrow slice.’”

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