As the number of Oregon voters unaffiliated with a political party rises, so has the number of voters locked out a key part of the electoral process. Oregon’s third-largest political party sees an opportunity in that.

The Independent Party of Oregon, the state’s largest third party, is opening its primary to the state’s 948,697 voters not registered with a party — a third of the state’s electorate.

“They’re the largest group of voters and the most disenfranchised group of voters and they deserve to be heard,” said Sal Peralta, the party’s secretary.

Under current law, the two major parties could let unaffiliated voters participate in their primary elections but don’t do so.

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The number of voters who chose not to pick a party for voting purposes has grown since Oregon enacted its Motor Voter Act in 2016. The law automatically registers eligible Oregonians to vote when they renew a driver’s license or ID card. Voters are automatically registered as unaffiliated with the option to later select party.

In December 2015, there were 527,302 unaffiliated voters - about a quarter of the state’s 2.17 million voters at the time. Now, there are 2.8 million registered voters and a greater proportion are unaffiliated.

The Independent Party lost its major party status earlier this year when its less than 5% of voters picked the party. The result was it no longer was qualified to conduct primary elections at public expense.

But Peralta said the party is comfortable with its return to a minor party because it means the party has free rein in how it conducts its primary.

“We want to use it as an opportunity to build coalitions and promote alternative voting systems,” he said. “It’s a great organizing tool.”

The Democratic and Republican parties hold their taxpayer-funded primaries in May. The Independent Party, which now has 124,777 registered voters, expects to conduct its primary in March using the internet to deliver ballots.

Oregon allows for “fusion voting” where candidates can be the nominee for several parties. One candidate, for instance, can be the nominee for both the Republican and Independent parties. Peralta said his party’s nomination holds sway in competitive elections, and that more than 60 legislators, both Democratic and Republican, are backed by the Independent Party.

The party intends to conduct its primary using alternative voting designed to factor in the second and third choices of voters. The party’s primary will feature candidates for statewide offices and president and allow any unaffiliated voter to participate.

The party intends to conduct its primary using one of several forms of alternative voting designed to factor in the second and third choices of voters. The party will still use a caucus, restricted to its voters, to select candidates for legislative offices.

Peralta said that notifying the state’s 948,697 unaffiliated voters will be a challenge and the party will use paid social media to reach them.

The Democrats and Republicans have both tried open primaries.

Most recently, the Republican Party opened its primary in 2012 for races for secretary of state, attorney general and treasurer. Kevin Hoar, spokesman for the state Republican Party, said that there are no current plans to open the party’s primary.

Molly Woon, spokeswoman for the Democratic Party of Oregon, said the party’s central committee earlier this month decided not to open its primary.

Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or jake@salemreporter.com or @jakethomas2009.