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Primary election turnout big - but not a record

More than a million Oregonians cast ballots in Tuesday’s primary, meeting expectations set early this week by election officials and at least creating the possibility that turnout will surpass the record set in the presidential primary in 2008.

It was unclear what impact the state’s new automatic voter registration system had on the election results. Oregon has several hundred thousand more registered voters than eight years ago.

“It’s an important symbolic threshold, but also the state is growing,” said Paul Gronke, a political science professor and director of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College in Portland. “It’s sort of like those box office records that have been broken every year. They’re kind of meaningless.”

According to unofficial totals from the Secretary of State’s Office, 1,026,144 votes were cast, for a turnout of 44.73 percent.

In Multnomah County, voter turnout was 53.8 percent. In Clackamas County, turnout was 46.85 percent.

Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins said it was only the second time primary turnout has topped the million vote mark. The first time was 2008, when turnout was driven by the Democratic contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Turnout was significantly higher in that primary, at 58.26 percent, and 1,170,526 votes were cast.

Jim Moore, a political science professor and director of the Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation at Pacific University, said turnout in this primary election was unimpressive by Oregon’s standards, although it was much higher than in many other states, including Kentucky, which also held a presidential primary on Tuesday.

Overall, "[turnout] is pretty mediocre,” Moore said.

Gronke and Moore both said Oregon was likely able to exceed the million vote mark because of excitement about Democratic presidential politics. The matchup between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders wracked up 508,351 votes. Write-in candidates received another 8,920 votes.

But Democrat voters were not as excited with Tuesday’s contest as they were in 2008, when Obama, Clinton and the write-ins split 638,790 votes.

Nor were they as excited about Clinton. Although she lost to Obama in 2008 by 116,000 votes, Clinton received 30,000 more votes eight years ago than she did Tuesday. She lost to Sanders 279,603 to 228,748.

Moore said that although Donald Trump is already the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, nearly 35 percent of Republican voters cast their ballots for “anyone but Trump, which is a big issue for him.”

There were nearly 2.3 million eligible voters in this year’s primary election. That included more than 100,000 new voters registered in 2016, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. Many of those voters were registered as a result of the state’s new automatic voter registration system, which took effect this year. Under the law, people who are eligible to vote are registered after they obtain or renew their driver’s licenses, permits or identification cards. Oregon was the first state to enact an automatic voter registration law.

It’s too early to know whether automatically registered voters turned out in higher or lower percentages when compared with other voters.

On Monday, the Portland nonprofit Bus Project — which pushed for automatic voter registration — claimed on its website that early ballot returns showed higher turnout among automatically registered voters. However, Caroline Cowley of the Bus Project wrote in an email that the group will not finish analyzing the full election results until later this week.

Gronke said many of the automatically registered voters might have been excited to vote in this primary because it was the first time they received ballots and other election-related mail from the state. The true test will be whether they continue to vote in future elections, Gronke said.

The high point for voter turnout in Oregon elections remains the 1960s and 1970s, when as many as 73 percent of registered voters went to the polls.

The Capital Bureau is a collaboration between EO Media Group and Pamplin Media Group. Hillary Borrud can be reached at 503-364-4431 or hborrud@eomediagroup.com.