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Less than half of Oregon’s registered Democrats and Republicans voted in the May 17 primary. Only 13 percent of nonaffiliated voters cast ballots. It may be time to rethink Oregon’s primary election.

Turnout Lagged Despite Lively Races for Governor, Congress and the Legislature

Voter turnout in Oregon’s May primary topped 37 percent, the highest since 2010, but still far less than the halcyon 1960s and 1970s when primary election turnouts exceeded 50 percent.

Some political observers hail the 1.1 million ballots cast on May 17, while others note more than 1.8 million Oregon registered voters didn’t cast ballots, despite an open gubernatorial race, several competitive congressional primary contests and a new law allowing ballots to count if postmarked on election day.

More than 47 percent of Republicans and almost 45 percent of Democrats voted, but only 13.1 percent of non-affiliated voters bothered to vote. Non-affiliated voters now outnumber registered Democrats and Republicans.

Under Oregon’s primary election system, non-affiliated voters cannot vote for partisan candidates such as governor, Congress and the legislature. However, many non-partisan offices are decided in the primary when a candidate receives 50 percent or more of the votes cast.

The number of non-affiliated voters has increased since passage of Oregon’s motor voter law that automatically registers someone when they apply for or renew a driver’s license. Selecting a political party isn’t required. Since January 2016 when the Oregon motor voter law went into effect, the number of non-affiliated voters has climbed from around 500,000 to more than 1 million.

Low voter turnout of non-affiliated candidates doesn’t explain why more than half of registered Democrats and Republicans didn’t vote in the primary, despite hotly contested races backed by millions of dollars in paid advertising.

Oregon arguably has the most convenient voting system in America. Registered voters automatically receive mail-in ballots 14 to 18 days before an election. Registered voters receive a Voters’ Pamphlet containing information about candidates and ballot measures. Ballots can be dropped off at conveniently located drop boxes or mailed in envelopes that don’t require stamps. Mail-in balloting allows voters time to consider who and what they vote for while sitting at their kitchen table. Oregon voters aren’t subjected to voting on a workday and standing in line when it’s raining.

If making voting easy doesn’t promote large election turnouts, what would? The creeping conclusion about low voter turnouts in primary elections is that increasing numbers of voters aren’t interested, may be turned off by politics and politicians or have grown distrustful of the electoral process.

Any or all of those are reasons for concern in a democracy in which voters who vote are in charge. Voters who don’t vote may be silently abetting candidates who appeal to a minority of voters who do vote.

Non-affiliated voters offer the best place to start pumping up primary election participation. The simplest and cheapest approach is to give non-affiliated voters an election-by-election option of voting for either Democratic or Republican candidates in a primary. Party official objections might be overcome if they viewed the selection process by non-affiliated voters as a recruiting list for potential party registration.

A group called Oregon Open Primaries is seeking to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot. They must gain approval for a ballot title, then securing roughly 150,000 valid signatures to place the measure on the fall ballot.  As it turns out, Oregon election law already gives major political parties the discretion to open their primaries to nonaffiliated voters with 90 days’ notice prior to a primary election.

There are other options that would require changes in Oregon election law. Washington uses a top-two primary set-up where candidates for federal and state offices appear on the same ballot, all registered voters are eligible to vote and the two candidates, regardless of party affiliation, earning the most votes advance to the general election. California has a similar top-two primary. Washingtonians appear to like the top-two primary system, but it took the state years to implement it, including going to the US Supreme Court to confirm it was constitutional.

Some jurisdictions use a ranked choice voting system where voters express their preferences for candidates. Several cities in California, including San Francisco, implemented ranked choice voting for the first time this year. Benton County has adopted, but not implemented a ranked choice voting format. Portland and Multnomah County may ask their voters this fall for charter amendments to switch to ranked choice voting.

Presidential election years tend to stimulate higher voter turnout and 2024 is already shaping up as no exception. The prospect of higher turnouts in 2024 shouldn’t dim efforts to expand interest in primary and general elections in any year. The idea is not to break turnout records but to encourage every registered voter to vote.