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Will Oregon voters return after dismal primary?

SALEM — Oregon's voter participation rate hit a near record low for the modern era in the May primary. That begs the question: Why?

 Did voters sit out because there weren't many high-profile races, something that's naturally fixed in a general election? Or are they turned off from politics and uninterested in engaging?

 The answer, and the likelihood that the campaigns can motivate people who agree with them, has implications in any of the races that have the potential to be close this November.

 Those include ballot measures to legalize pot and label genetically engineered food; top-of-the-ticket races for governor and U.S. Senate; and especially the much lower profile state legislative races that will determine control of the state Capitol.

 Just 36 percent of registered voters turned in a ballot in May, the lowest participation rate for a primary since Oregon eliminated polling places in 2000 and the second-lowest since 1960. By contrast, 42 percent of voters participated four years earlier.

 "There's a lot of time spent trying to model and profile voters," said Len Bergstein a political consultant who has worked on ballot measure campaigns. "You model who's likely to come out for these various issues, and then what other issues are they likely to vote on."

 Oregon has historically had among the highest voter turnout rates in the country, but the state this year is mirroring a national downward trend in participation.

 Campaign experts attribute the low participation in May in part to a boring election season. Aside from a marginally competitive Republican primary for U.S. Senate, there were no high-profile statewide races nudge voters to fill out their ballots. There were fewer television ads that remind voters it's election season, and the campaigns didn't have the aggressive statewide field operations to get their supporters to participate.

 "Getting voters to realize that there's an election going on is part of the challenge," said Stacey Dycus, a Democratic political consultant who's worked on ballot measure and candidate campaigns.

 The general election, by contrast, has plenty to get people excited.

 The races for governor and Senate have the potential to be competitive. Ballot measures on marijuana legalization and labeling requirements for genetically modified crops both have the potential to motivate on-again, off-again voters. So does a referendum that would grant driving privileges to people in the country illegally.

 The pot and labeling ballot measure campaigns look to be well funded, which means they'll have the cash for television ads and expensive get-out-the-vote efforts.

 Of course, television can be a double-edged sword. Effective ads can make an emotional connection with voters, Dycus said. But relentless negative advertising — as has already begun in the Senate race — can turn off voters who are frustrated with politics or unenthusiastic about choosing between two sullied candidates.

 Democrats outnumber Republicans in Oregon, but the party has struggled to get some supporters to cast a ballot in the midterm elections.

 "Right now, Republicans seem to be interested in the election more than Democrats," said Portland-based Republican pollster Bob Moore. "That could change. I'm sure the president is going to try to gin up turnout for the Democrats around the country, so it's kind of hard to project right now what it's going to be like."

 Oregon's voter participation rates have ebbed and flowed over the past six decades, the period for which data is accessible from the secretary of state's website.

 For midterm primaries — those in years without a presidential election — it's ranged from a high of 56 percent in 1966 to a low of 35 percent in 1998, just 1 point lower than this year's turnout.

 For general elections, the high of 77 percent was in 1990; the low of 59 percent was, like the lowest-turnout primary, in 1998.

 In some years, like 1998, poor turnout in the primary has been followed by similarly poor turnout in the general. But it's not universal. In 2010, primary turnout was below average for the 13 elections since 1960, but turnout in the general was among the highest.