As the midterm elections approach next year, Umatilla County’s largest political group will hold no primaries and field no candidates.
This group casts the widest of tents and houses a wide spectrum of political views, but it’s more of a designation than a party.
According to Oregon Secretary of State data, 2017 marked the first year non-affiliated voters surpassed Republicans as the largest group of registered voters in Umatilla County. Non-affiliated voters had been the second largest group, moving past Democrats in 2014.
In October, there were 15,909 non-affiliated voters, good for 38 percent plurality in the electorate.
The growth in the ranks among the non-affiliated was aided by Oregon’s “motor voter” law, legislation that automatically registered people to vote whenever they obtained or renewed their driving license.
Voters that were registered through this process were sent a card in the mail that would ask them which party they wanted to register with. If they didn’t send the card back to the state with their preferred affiliation, voters were automatically designated non-affiliated.
Since the law was implemented in 2016, 91 percent of the 8,230 Umatilla County voters who were enrolled through “motor voter” were automatically registered as non-affiliated.
That helped account for the jump of non-affiliated voters from 8,424 in October 2015 to 13,141 a year later. But non-affiliated voters had already risen by 22 percent between 2001 and 2015. Registration in third parties — Libertarian, Constitution, Pacific Green, Working Families, Progressive and other smaller parties — has also seen steady growth since the turn of the century.
The ranks of the non-affiliated are growing, not just through inaction during the registration process, but through a conscious choice to opt out of the two-party system.
On Tuesday morning, the students of Brian Johnson’s government class at Pendleton High School voted.
By a hand count, only six of the 25 or so seniors in Johnson’s class were registered or planned to register with a party.
Jessica Daggett said her decision to remain non-affiliated was to give herself more time to familiarize herself with politics before committing herself to a party.
Others had already formed a political identity, but still felt uncomfortable joining the GOP-Democrat dichotomy.
Journey Hahn said she was left of the Democratic Party, but felt like supporting smaller parties like Working Families or Pacific Green was a waste of a vote.
Evan Miller considered himself conservative, but sometimes disagreed with the Republican Party’s positions and remained unaffiliated.
Coming from a family with parents with different political ideologies, Stanton Schmitz said he saw the extremity in both political parties and wanted to stay out of it.
Seth Wood was one of the few students who said he was joining a political party. Raised in a Republican household, Wood said he was joining the GOP but in an age where technology and culture were changing all the time, political identity was more fluid than it was in the past.
“Our generation is moving away from labels,” Marin Kennedy said.
Kim Puzey has been without a label for quite some time.
The executive director of the Port of Umatilla said he was non-affiliated for 20 years.
Puzey used his non-affiliated status to support candidates from both parties. He supported the 2008 presidential campaign of Bill Richardson, the former Democratic governor of New Mexico, and the 2012 campaign of Jon Huntsman, the former Republican governor of Utah.
Puzey’s top issue when evaluating candidates for office is their support for investing in public infrastructure, akin to the projects that were a part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal or Dwight Eisenhower’s interstate highway initiative.
The issue of infrastructure was so strong for Puzey that he switched his registration to Democratic in the 2016 primary election so he could vote for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Puzey said he was drawn to Sanders’ $1 trillion infrastructure plan.
President Donald Trump’s call for an infrastructure bill in the wake of the train derailment in DuPont, Washington, was one of the first times Puzey agreed with the current president.
While Puzey may have left the non-affiliated ranks, he didn’t seem surprised that people were flocking to it.
With increasing polarization in Washington, D.C., and in Salem, Puzey said there’s a “degree of disenchantment” with both parties.
Despite the growing number of non-affiliated voters, Republicans still dominate Eastern Oregon.
Trump won the county with 17,059 total votes, a number that’s hard to reach without the support of many non-affiliated voters.
Umatilla County’s delegation to the Oregon Legislature — Reps. Greg Smith, Greg Barreto and Sen. Bill Hansell — are all Republicans. During the last election cycle, all three ran without Democratic opposition.
Even with the county’s conservative bent, the leaders of both local parties acknowledge the rise of non-affiliated voters. Whether it’s because of dissatisfaction with the GOP’s association with the controversial Trump or the “finagling” the Democratic National Committee did during the primary between Sanders and Hillary Clinton, modern voters don’t have a lot of affinity for either party.
Larry B. Moore, the chairman of the Umatilla County Republican Party, said local voter outreach efforts now include targeting non-affiliated voters along with Republicans.
Mark Petersen, the chairman of the Umatilla County Democratic Party, said non-affiliated millennials tend to be Sanders supporters. As Democrats try to unseat U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, and protect incumbent Gov. Kate Brown, it’s up to party members to tell the non-
affiliated about Democratic candidates and how they align with their views.
As the country continues to polarize, Moore doesn’t anticipate the trend toward non-affiliation stopping anytime soon.
“Once you go down that road, it’s hard to come back,” he said.
Contact Antonio Sierra at email@example.com or 541-966-0836.