Oregon appears headed towards a low turnout

This year the final results won’t be known for a week due to a change in the law that allows ballots postmarked by 8 p.m. to be counted

By: - May 17, 2022 8:23 pm

Election workers John Jorgensen and Irene Morris inspect ballots on May 16, 2022 at the Marion County Clerk’s Office in Salem. In future elections, Oregon might opt for ranked choice voting. (Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Oregon appears headed towards a low turnout by its nearly 3 million voters – and potentially a new historical low in a midterm election.

The final count won’t be known until next Tuesday. The Legislature last year extended the timeline for mail-in ballots. Those postmarked by 8 p.m. on Election Day will be counted, provided they arrive within a week. 

As of Wednesday at 7:30 a.m., the Secretary of State’s Office showed that 31% of the state’s 2.9 million registered voters had turned in their ballots. 

“The turnout is poor – we should acknowledge that,” said John Horvick, senior vice president of DHM Research, a Portland nonpartisan research firm. 

The turnout comes at a time when it’s never been easier to vote, and there have never been more registered voters in Oregon thanks to the 2016 motor voter law that automatically registers those 16 and older to vote when they obtain or renew a driver’s license permit or identification card. 

Monday’s turnout at 7:30 a.m.

Eligible voters: 2.9 million voters

Turnout: 31%

But that’s not increased electoral participation, Horvick said.

“We’re not getting more people to turn out even though we are mailing more people ballots, we’re giving them postage paid for the return and we’re giving them more time to vote,” Horvick said.

In the last midterm primary in 2018, nearly 34% of the electorate voted, marking an all-time low. Four years before that, the final count was nearly 36%. 

Presidential elections tend to attract more voters in Oregon, even in the primary. Secretary of State data show that 46% of registered voters cast ballots in the 2020 primary and nearly 54% voted in the 2016 primary. But there are exceptions: In the presidential election primaries in 2012 and 1996 only about 38% of registered voters cast ballots.

Political analysts say many factors affect turnout. One is the general mood, and today that’s grim. Surveys in Oregon and elsewhere show that large numbers of people are unhappy about the direction of the country. They don’t like the deepening divide between those on the right and left and the uncivil political discourse.

“Voters are quite upset, and we see that in a lot of different data,” Horvick said.

One reaction to that anger could be a desire to change the status quo. But another is despondency, and Horvick said that is likely contributing to the turnout in Oregon. He said campaign finance limits in Multnomah County, which has the largest electorate – nearly 560,000 registered voters – might also be contributing to a low turnout by reducing the number of mailers and voter outreach. 

Another potential factor: the plethora of candidates, especially in the governor’s race, which is wide open this year. There are 19 candidates on the Republican side and 15 Democrats vying for the position. 

Voters also have to pick a U.S. representative in the newly created 6th Congressional District which spans Polk and Yamhill counties and includes parts of Marion, Clackamas and Washington counties. Horvick said people might be taking longer to vote as they consider the choices and that turnout could improve in coming days. Normally, about half of voters turn in their ballots in the last few days of an election, he said.

“We may see a big bump in coming days,” Horvick said. “Another possibility is that people are just not very satisfied with the candidates.”

Source: Oregon Secretary of State
Chart by John Horvick, DHM Research

Non-affiliated voters affect turnout

The mid-day tally on Tuesday shows only 6% of non-affiliated voters casting ballots. That compares with about 20% of Republicans and Democrats. 

The low turnout among unaffiliated voters affects the overall tally because their ranks are growing. Since 2016, the DMV has automatically registered people to vote as unaffiliated. If they want to be in a party, they have to subsequently change their registration. It’s easy to do but many people don’t bother or don’t know what to do, Horvick said. 

Their low turnout largely reflects a lack of choice. Oregon’s closed primaries exclude unaffiliated voters from partisan races. In state races, they can only choose judges for the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and circuit courts, and almost all of those races are uncontested. 

There is only one nonpartisan race statewide with a wide choice – the commissioner of the Bureau of Labor and Industries. Seven candidates are running but that race does not attract many voters, Horvick said.

According to Secretary of State data, there are now just over 1 million unaffiliated voters in Oregon – about one-third of the electorate or about the same percentage as Democrats. Republicans account for about 25% of registered voters. 

“The share of voters who are nonaffiliated just continues to march upwards,” Horvick said.  

As their numbers have grown, the midterm primary turnout has fallen, Horvick said.

“If you look back the last 20, 30, 40, 50 years, the turnout in midterm primaries has just eroded,” Horvick said.

He expects that trend to continue. 

Variation among counties, ages

Voter turnout varies among counties. Historically, those in more sparsely populated rural counties have had higher turnouts in midterm primaries. Those counties are also largely Republican, state data show. Horvick said Republicans tend to vote more than Democrats though not by much according to state data as of mid-day Tuesday. It showed that 19.7% of Democrats had cast ballots compared with 20% of Republicans.

Between 2006 and 2018, Gilliam County, which now has about 1,380 registered voters, had the highest turnout – 63%. At the bottom over that 12-year time span is Clackamas County, with 32 percent.

As of 7:30 a.m. Wednesday, Grant, Harney and Gilliam had the highest turnouts — 50.3% for Grant, 49.4% for Harney and 48.9% in Gilliam County.

Clackamas County, with just over 306,000 registered voters and where election officials had to redo about 50,000 ballots because of bad bar codes, had the lowest turnout rate in the state: 21.2% according to data Wednesday morning. 

The other urban counties – Marion, Multnomah, Lane and Washington – are also at the bottom of the midterm primary turnout chart. Except for Marion County, which is fairly evenly split between the two major parties, they are dominated by Democrats.

Because of its size, Multnomah County’s turnout affects the overall rate. By Wednesday morning, 31.6% of the county’s registered voters had cast ballots. Besides campaign limits, demographics affect the county’s turnout rate, Horvick said. 

It’s one of the more diverse counties. A similar share of Black and white voters usually cast ballots, followed by Asian Americans and Hispanics, which usually have the smallest turnout, Horvick said. 

Malheur County, with a large Hispanic population, has had a 39% turnout rate between 2006 and 2018, the 10th from the bottom. Wednesday morning’s data show that 30.5% of the nearly 17,800 registered voters had cast ballots.

But Umatilla County typically has the lowest turnout among rural counties. Historically, 35% of its electorate now totaling nearly 48,000 voters has cast ballots. By Wednesday morning, 24.8% had done so, putting it just below Clackamas County.

The low rate probably is connected to age, Horvick said. It’s one of the youngest counties in Oregon.

Age counts in elections. The older people are, the more likely they are to vote – and not just in Oregon. 

“This is  a phenomenon that’s happened for a long, long, long time. And there’s no reason to think it’s going to change,” Horvick said. 

State data show that those 65 and older account for 43% of Democratic voters and 36% of Republicans, the highest percentages in the two parties. But they only account for 16% of unaffiliated voters, compared with 47% aged 18 to 34.

Older voters have a longer history of casting ballots and they’re often more engaged in the community, Horvick said. They might own a house and pay property taxes, and they might have children in school. Surveys show they’re also more stable, Horvick said, which means they might be more engaged in the community.

Though Oregon’s turnout is low, it stands out nationwide, according to a statement by the Secretary of State’s Office Tuesday.

“Out of all the states that have already held primaries in 2022, Oregon will likely end up with the second highest voter turnout,” the statement said. “Those states are Texas (17.7%), Indiana (14%), Ohio (20.64%), Nebraska (33.29%) and W. Virginia (22.84%).”

Washington and California are also likely to have relatively high turnouts, according to Chris Kosti, professor of political science and environmental studies at Reed College in Portland.

“Washington, California, Oregon have much higher turnout rates than other states do, despite the fact that they’ve also expanded the electorate in ways that other states have not,” said Kosti.“We’ve done a pretty good job here.”


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Lynne Terry
Lynne Terry

Lynne Terry has more than 30 years of journalism experience, including a recent stint as editor of The Lund Report, a highly regarded health news site. She reported on health and food safety in her 18 years at The Oregonian, was a senior producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting and Paris correspondent for National Public Radio for nine years.