SALEM — Voter turnout was modest for Tuesday’s primary election.
Observers say the turnout figures, part of a long-term downward trend in voter participation in Oregon, could have also been affected by the state’s recent implementation of automatic voter registration, which swelled the voter rolls considerably.
About 33 percent of registered voters cast a ballot in the primary, according to preliminary numbers from the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office. That’s lower than any Oregon primary since 1964.
In Clatsop County, voter turnout was 36 percent.
According to Jim Moore, director of the Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation at Pacific University, voter turnout in Oregon has been steadily moving downward since the 1968 election, a high point, where 72.8 percent of voters participated.
“There are, of course, bumps in the road, but it’s basically a long-term downward trend, and it’s hard to say where we are now, except on that trend,” Moore said.
The 2016 primary, with both major political parties in contentious presidential nominating fights, garnered a 54 percent turnout. But primary elections in midterm years such as 2018 — where there isn’t a contest for president on the ballot — don’t tend to generate enthusiastic turnout.
“The only thing worse would be a special election held in January of an oddly-numbered year, where you’d get lower turnout,” said Paul Gronke, a professor of political science at Reed College and director of the Early Voting Information Center.
Participation also appears to vary between political parties.
A slightly greater share of registered Democrats and Republicans turned out than did in the last midterm primary, in 2014.
Early figures from the state show that about 43 percent of registered Democrats voted in Tuesday’s election, while about 46 percent of registered Republicans cast a ballot. Both those rates of participation are slightly higher than they were in 2014.
The rate of participation among members of other parties — including the Independent Party of Oregon — held steady at about 24 percent between 2014 and 2018.
Meanwhile, participation among nonaffiliated voters decreased significantly from 2014 to 2018 — from 20.3 percent to 13.6 percent.
That’s likely prompted by a recent influx of nonaffiliated voters who were registered through the state’s new automatic voter registration law, which went into effect in early 2016.
That means that Oregonians who have a qualifying interaction at the Department of Motor Vehicles are now automatically registered to vote. During that process, they can either opt out of registration, select a political party, or do nothing and be automatically registered as a nonaffiliated voter.
The resulting growth in the number of registered voters, in turn, could also have depressed overall turnout numbers in an off-year election. In 2014, 35.9 percent of registered voters cast a ballot; in 2010, 41.6 percent; and in 2006, 38.6 percent.
“I would hesitate to make any assertions about trajectory of turnout, because we have added in Oregon Motor Voter registrants,” Gronke said, “And so they will almost by definition pull down our overall turnout numbers, for good reason: we’ve added people into the registration system that were previously sort of detached from the political system.”
“It’s sort of bouncing around,” said Gronke of turnout, “So this does look like a low point, but it’s going to be 2020 until we’ll really be able to tell.”
The Capital Bureau is a collaboration between EO Media Group and Pamplin Media Group.