Rich Vial has ditched his political party, and failed to attract the interest of Oregon's non-affiliated and Independent Party voters. Now, as he presses an unlikely bid to become Oregon's first secretary of state not affiliated with any party, the former Republican lawmaker's pinning his hopes on a farm field, an FM radio transmitter and a puzzled electorate.
On Saturday, Vial will attempt to become the first candidate in decades to land on the November ballot using a little known, and even less used, provision in Oregon law.
State statute allows nonpartisan candidates to pursue nomination for statewide office via an “assembly of electors” — at least 1,000 registered voters, who all show up at the same place at the same time, and say they want to nominate a given candidate.
It's a gambit that has more frequently failed than succeeded over the years. In one much-publicized attempt, Ralph Nader failed to get onto Oregon's 2004 presidential ballot as an independent using the tool.
Yet Vial — until recently the deputy secretary of state under Republican Secretary of State Bev Clarno — is making a go of it during a pandemic.
“I’m feeling pretty good,” he said Wednesday. “If you’d have asked me a week ago, I wasn’t quite as optimistic. But more and more people are contacting me.”
Not long ago, the prospect of gathering 1,000 voters in one place, with Oregon's COVID-19 picture growing steadily more dire, seemed unlikely. That changed in May, Vial said, when a Newberg drive-in movie theater announced it would be reopening despite the coronavirus. An idea formed.
“We did some research and found out that shortwave FM radio is something that anybody can legally do,” Vial said.
On Saturday morning, anyone convinced by a barrage of emails, calls, and social media pleas Vial has sent out — largely to past constituents — will make their way to a 40-acre grass seed field in Beaverton. When they arrive, they’ll be greeted by employees of the Oregon secretary of state, who will hand out official signature sheets that will be the ultimate arbiter of whether Vial has the 1,000 votes to qualify for the ballot as a nonpartisan candidate. Then they’ll park and turn their FM dials to 87.9, where Vial — armed with a radio transmitter he said cost less than $200 — will be waiting.
“I’m just going to encourage people to text me questions,” he said.
The matter is made more complicated by the dictates of state law. Vial doesn’t just need 1,000 people over the course of the day. He needs them all to be present at one time.
Even so, the gathering appears to be permissible under past readings of state guidelines aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19. While Washington County is currently under Phase 1 of the state's reopening framework, which limits indoor and outdoor gatherings at 25, drive-in movies and church services with more people have been allowed under the same restrictions because people can remain socially distanced from their vehicles.
Gov. Kate Brown’s office did not answer an inquiry about the matter by press time. Mask use will be mandated if people need to leave their cars to use on-site restrooms, a pamphlet for attendees said.
Vial is not giving himself much room for error. While state law allows such assemblies to occur for a maximum of 12 hours, Vial said his event will begin admitting cars at 9:30 a.m. If there aren’t at least 1,000 registered voters present by 11 a.m., he said, “we’re going to declare it unsuccessful and let everybody go home.”
One big potential hurdle? Many people don’t understand what he’s up to. They don’t get why they need to show up in person, or why Vial didn’t pursue a party nomination in the May primary, or how he can even think of doing this during a pandemic.
“The reality is: People are confused about a whole lot of things,” he said. “A lot of people don’t understand the nuances of how the two major parties have managed to keep non-two-party candidates from running meaningfully.”
The baroque hoops of this process are particularly striking for someone like Vial, who earlier this year was the assumed frontrunner for the Republican nomination for secretary of state.
As former deputy to current Secretary of State Bev Clarno, Vial had gained a working knowledge of the office's responsibilities overseeing elections, audits, and business registration. That tenure garnered him sharp criticism — and lawsuits — from environmental groups that accused Vial and Clarno of attempting to illegally block ballot measures in a highly partisan sop to business interests.
But Vial said partisanship is the farthest thing from his mind. He became disillusioned with the two-party system, he said, during his single term as a state representative from 2017 to 2019 (he lost a bid for reelection). He said the system has led to battling factions far more concerned with reelection than sensible policymaking — and that it has no place whatsoever in an office that oversees elections and audits.
“We’ve lost the opportunity for our leaders to engage in any meaningful policy discussion,” he said. “The whole idea is to make the other side look bad and to attract money that wants to make the other side look bad.”
Because of these concerns, Vial declined to seek the Republican nomination, leaving that role to a reluctant state Sen. Kim Thatcher. Instead, he first sought the nomination of the Independent Party of Oregon, which opened up its online primary to both its own party members and more than 900,000 nonaffiliated voters in the state. Only around 700 people voted in that contest, tapping Thatcher.
Vial switched to plan B: the little-used “assembly of electors” allowed under state law.
Just how often would-be candidates have attempted this route to the ballot in Oregon is unclear. The secretary of state's office could only point to two attempts in the last two decades: Nader's 2004 bid, and an unsuccessful effort by a hemp activist to run for governor in 2001. Conversations with political history buffs yield few more examples.
Past press coverage suggests just one person has succeeded in using an assembly of electors to win a nomination for secretary of state: Don Clark, a former reporter who mounted a campaign for the seat in 1984. He lost, badly, to Democrat Barbara Roberts. She went on to become governor.
If Vial succeeds on Saturday, a similar fate could be waiting in November.
Besides Thatcher, the Republican in the race, Vial would face off against Democratic state Sen. Shemia Fagan. Fagan used a huge fundraising advantage and widespread institutional support to eke out a win in a highly competitive primary in May, and appears poised to bring similar resources to bear in November.
Vial, by contrast, has raised around $46,000 this year, according to state records. A full $40,000 of that was in the form of personal or family loans.
"I don't think I'm going to have the money to run endless TV ads like I'm sure will be there for the Democrats," he said. "I don't know that I'll even have as much money as the Republicans.
Instead, he plans to use the tumult of the current moment in a plea to voters: The existing way of doing things is not in their best interests, and it's time to try another way.
“The way it’s working not does not sing to a lot of people,” Vial said. “Will it be enough right now?”
That’s a question he can’t answer.