Oregon voters are holding onto their ballots longer this year than they have in recent primary elections.

A week before the May 17 election, just over 288,000 of the state’s more than 2.9 million registered voters have cast their ballots, according to the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office. That’s a turnout rate of 9.8%.

Both the number of votes cast and the turnout percentage significantly lag recent elections, a Capital Chronicle review of data showed. By this point in 2010, 2014 and 2018, more than 300,000 people had voted and turnout ranged from 12.4% to 15%.

Oregon’s usually high turnout has fallen in recent years, since the 2016 Motor Voter law began automatically registering to vote anybody getting a driver’s license or otherwise interacting with the state Department of Motor Vehicles. About 800,000 net voters have been added to voter rolls since then, including many who have shown no interest in voting. 

Non-affiliated voters are also now the state’s largest group, and most of them don’t vote in primaries. Oregon’s closed partisan primaries exclude anyone but registered Democrats or Republicans from voting in primaries for governor, Congress and the Legislature. In 2018, only 14% of non-affiliated voters voted in the primary, compared to 44% of Democrats and 47% of Republicans. 

So far this year, almost 134,000 Democrats and more than 93,000 Republicans have cast their ballots, compared to just over 43,000 non-affiliated voters. That amounts to 13.2% of Democrats, 12.8% of Republicans and just 4.3% of non-affiliated voters. 

Pacific University professor Jim Moore, who studies Oregon politics, told the Capital Chronicle he suspects low turnout so far is due to a lack of enthusiasm for candidates at the top of the ballot. Neither primary for governor has a clear front-runner driving turnout, and there’s no reason to believe Sen. Ron Wyden won’t breeze to another term. 

“First of all, there’s no clear favorite that can really get people jazzed,” Moore said. “They all have to introduce themselves, so the voters still don’t know who they are. And secondly, except for the independent spending on (6th Congressional District candidate) Carrick Flynn, nobody got their ads out early to generate buzz, get people talking and get that turnout up. They all hit in a clump, right about the same time ballots went out.” 

Recent polling in the Republican and Democratic primaries for governor showed that many voters hadn’t made up their minds. Former House Speaker Tina Kotek and state Treasurer Tobias Read are in a close race in a Democratic primary with 13 other lesser-known Democrats running, but the two have struggled to differentiate themselves and their policies.

Among a crowded field of 19 Republicans, former House Minority Leader Christine Drazan and former Oregon Republican Party Chair Bob Tiernan hold slight leads in a recent poll, but more than a quarter of Republicans remained undecided in early May. 

“There’s nobody who’s really standing out and saying ‘I want to go in a new direction,’” Moore said. “That really drives voters.” 

Election law changes could also contribute to slower voter turnout.

This is the first year that election officials will count ballots that arrive after Election Day, as long as they were postmarked on or before May 17. In previous years, ballots needed to be at an election office or in an official drop box by 8 p.m. on election night or they weren’t counted.

That meant candidates and their surrogates would push hard the week before the election to make sure voters had mailed their ballots by the Thursday before Election Day or made plans to return them to a ballot box. That messaging and urgency is missing this year. 

The state Democratic and Republican parties aren’t involved in “get out the vote” efforts in primaries, leaving it up to campaigns, advocacy groups and some county party committees. 

Oregon Capital Chronicle

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: info@oregoncapitalchronicle.com. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

Julia Shumway, Oregon Capital Chronicle

Julia Shumway has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.