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Oregonians not in party mood

Oregon and Jackson County voters are increasingly shunning the Democratic and Republican parties this election, opting to join the growing ranks of unaffiliated voters.

The number of registered Democrats and Republicans has declined since the presidential election in 2012, following a statewide trend, even though voter registration levels have remained surprisingly high, bolstered by interest in a number of ballot initiatives.

“A lot of it is the younger people who are choosing not to go with a party affiliation,” Jackson County Clerk Chris Walker said.

The county currently has a total of 121,718 registered voters, slightly ahead of the 120,890 counted just after the 2012 election. Voters not affiliated with any party now number 28,154, almost 3,000 more than in 2012. Independent Party voters have increased their ranks by almost 1,000 to 7,295 in the county.

Democrats have seen their numbers drop by almost 2,000 voters since 2012 to 38,694, while Republicans have seen a decline of more than 1,000 to 44,168.

“That’s a pretty sizeable shift for a county of this size,” Walker said.

The decline in Republicans hasn’t been as sharp as at the statewide level, where the GOP registration has dropped to 29.9 percent, compared with almost 38 percent of total voters for Democrats. Unaffiliated voters represent about 24 percent of the total and minor parties have about 8 percent of those registered.

Just under 2.2 million voters are registered statewide, according to the Oregon Secretary of State's Office, which is about 7,000 less than the all-time high set in 2012.

Other counties throughout the state have seen big increases in the number of non-affiliates or those joining the Independent Party.

In Multnomah County, almost 25 percent of registered voters are unaffiliated, outpacing Republicans who make up only 14 percent of voters, according to the Secretary of State's Office.

Walker said she has seen a lot of voter registration in response to ballot measures, particularly Ballot Measure 91, which would require labeling of foods that contain genetically modified organisms, known as GMOs.

Walker predicts the voter turnout will be in the high 70 percent range, compared with 80 percent or higher in a presidential election.

Enthusiasm for some of the ballot measures will likely bring out the voters, Walker said. Locally, some of the races, including for Senate District 3 between Sen. Alan Bates, D-Medford, and Republican Dave Dotterrer of Ashland, have also attracted a lot of interest, she said.

Walker said the large number of non-affiliates in Senate District 3 could help sway the election. Bates won the race in 2010 by only 282 votes.

Democrats have an almost 4,000-vote advantage in Senate District 3, but about one-third of all those registered are with a minor party or are not registered with any party.

Chuck Heauser, chairman of the Jackson County Republican Central Committee, said the county and the state have been trending toward greater numbers of non-affiliates for some time.

“I think the candidates are recognizing that,” he said. “They’re trying to reach beyond traditional party lines.”

Over the decades, political pundits have proclaimed that either the Democratic or Republican party was dead, only to see them spring back to life, Heauser said. He said he thinks the same holds true for Democrats and Republicans as they go through a slump.

“I’m not concerned about it,” he said. “We go through cycles as a country.”

However, Ballot Measure 90 would create open primaries in the state, and some political analysts believe it could further erode the two-party system. Supporters say it's more fair for all voters to be able to fully participate in the primary elections and that because the top two vote-getters will move on to the general election, candidates will need to seek out more middle ground to get elected.

Heauser said he has his doubts about whether the measure would harm the party system, but he does think an open primary system would open the doors to more wealthy candidates.

“It’s sold as if it would benefit the minor party candidates,” he said. “But they typically don’t have access to the same kind of political funding.”

Lynn Howe, chairwoman of the Jackson County Democratic, said she’s encourage by the voter registration and the possibility of a strong turnout.

She said the numbers still indicate roughly the same edge toward Republicans in the county as a whole.

Howe said she thinks that the voter registration drive for the ballot measures has tended to be conducted in a nonpartisan manner that has helped attract a number of voters who consider themselves as unaffiliated with either party.

“Definitely, the newer registrants seem to be non-affiliate voters,” she said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow on Twitter at @reporterdm.