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Non-affiliated voters have little say in Oregon’s primary

Another Oregon primary election has come and gone, and voter turnout was the lowest in decades. That’s partly because the state’s Motor Voter law has added thousands of voters to the rolls, so the percentage of those casting ballots has dropped. But that’s not the only reason. The other factor is the refusal of the two major parties to allow more voters to participate, even as the parties’ share of the electorate continues to shrink.

The statewide turnout in Tuesday’s primary stood at just under 33 percent at midday Wednesday. It might inch up from there as the last few votes are counted, but not by much.

Secretary of State Dennis Richardson’s office tried to put a positive spin on that number by noting it was better than the turnouts in several other states Tuesday: 24.3 percent in Nebraska, 20.9 percent in Ohio, and just 14.3 percent in North Carolina. But none of those states has Oregon’s vote-by-mail system, which has boosted turnout since it was implemented.

Still, 33 percent is nothing to be proud of. So why didn’t more people vote?

First, automatically registering everyone who has contact with Driver and Motor Vehicle Services — the Motor Voter law — gets more people on the rolls, but it can’t force them to vote if they don’t want to or can’t be bothered. People who are motivated to vote will take the trouble to register themselves.

People automatically registered will get a ballot in the mail, and that likely will prompt some to fill it out and send it in. But the Motor Voter system registers new voters as non-affiliated, and then gives them the option to choose a party if they wish. Unless they decide to become Democrats or Republicans, those voters don’t have much say in the primary.

Their ballots list only nonpartisan races, ballot measures and Independent Party candidates — more on that later — while the Democratic and Republican party primary races are decided by a much smaller slice of the electorate.

Non-affiliated voters already are numerous enough that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans represent a majority of Oregon voters. Non-affiliated voters outnumber Republicans statewide, and outnumber Democrats in Jackson County. But they don’t get to help pick the candidates who will face off in November.

The result, more often than not, is primary winners who represent the extremes of their respective parties: the Democrats tend to be more liberal, the Republicans more conservative than the electorate as a whole. And the result of that is a wider divide in the Legislature and in Congress, making it harder to reach compromise on major legislation.

The Independent Party, which is listed on the ballot because it registered enough voters to qualify as a major party, chooses to allow non-affiliated voters to vote for its candidates in the primary. The Democrats and the Republicans could do that, too — but they choose not to.

So the state conducts an election, paid for with tax dollars, but nearly a third of registered voters aren’t allowed to fully participate.

Oregon voters had the opportunity to enact an open primary in 2014, but turned it down. Maybe that will change when non-affiliated voters outnumber both of the top two parties.