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Our view: Crash the party by welcoming more voters

Published on May 18, 2016 4:31PM

Last changed on May 18, 2016 8:45PM

Oregonians voted yesterday — or at least the government counted our votes yesterday.

Thanks to vote by mail, many of us returned our ballot far in advance. It’s pretty fantastic that 96 percent or so of those votes can therefore be counted within 15 minutes of polls closing. That sure makes it nice for journalists scrambling to make deadline for the next day’s paper.

But the real proof in the pudding is voter turnout, and Oregon did better than most this primary season. About 1.2 million Oregonians — 52.5 percent of registered voters — took part. Compare that to Kentucky, which held their primary election on the same day and saw around 20 percent of ballots returned.

Here in Oregon, turnout varied dramatically depending on party affiliation, however. Registered Democrats returned their ballots at a 60 percent clip, while 55 percent of Republicans did the same. Registered members of the Independent Party returned 32 percent of their ballots. Unaffiliated voters brought up the rear, however. Of 526,348 Oregonians who are not affiliated with a political party, only 94,412 returned their ballot — about 18 percent. Those are Kentucky numbers!

But can you blame unaffiliated voters? In a closed primary, they receive a pretty empty ballot. In Umatilla County, the unaffiliated had an important say in nonpartisan city council elections, a circuit court judge race and on local bond and levy issues. But they had no say on partisan races that get much more media attention: president, for instance, governor and state senators and representatives.

The importance of local races compared to national ones is another issue. We would argue a local city councilor or judge will have a greater effect on your life than most presidents ever will.

But we digress. In this editorial, we are supporting an open primary system.

It’s the best way to increase that already solid voting rate. Better even than the motor voter law, which put ballots into the hands of Oregonians whether they wanted them or not. The jury is still out on whether that law was worth the time and effort. The 1.2 million votes cast could be a record for an Oregon primary, but because of net migration, it doesn’t mean much. The same percentage of voters are doing their duty, and the same percentage are not.

Oregon’s voting laws are, thankfully, created with the thought of getting as many ballots to as many people as possible. And also to give people the time to fit a trip to the courthouse into their busy lives. Or, if their lives are too busy or otherwise encumbered, they can drop their ballots in the mail from the convenience of their own front door.

But in primary elections, the ability to choose which candidate you want to back this election in each race — not requiring you register before ballots are sent out and then un-registering once you’ve cast your vote — is another piece of the electoral puzzle that Oregon should be leading the nation in completing.

Opening the vote even more would siphon power from the parties, especially the big two, and re-enfranchise a whole lot of would-be voters.


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