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Candidates, parties shake off 'bland' politics to attract young voters

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: HILLARY BORRUD/EO MEDIA GROUP - Willamette University student Nastja Nykaza, 19, said she plans to vote this year but is not sure whether her vote will make a difference.SALEM — Oregon is among the easiest places in the nation to vote, with a vote-by-mail system and an automatic voter registration program.

Still, turnout among the state’s youngest voters has lagged behind other age groups for years, just as it does nationally.

That disparity is a popular target this year for state politicians, who have pitched a variety of ideas aimed at getting more young people to vote. However, their proposals are limited to things government can control, from free ballot postage to mandatory mock elections in public schools.

Some observers said young people are also looking for something else that is often missing: exciting candidates.

Turnout among voters ages 18 to 29 was lower than any other age group in the last two presidential and midterm elections, according to data from The Bus Project, a nonprofit in Portland that encourages young people to participate in politics and elections.


In the 2008 presidential election, turnout for Oregon’s voters 18 to 29 reached nearly 65 percent. Turnout among these voters dipped to 40 percent during the midterm elections. By contrast, 93 percent of registered voters ages 60 to 69 participated in the 2008 presidential election, according to data from The Bus Project.

Nikki Fisher, the group’s executive director, said she hears from young people that political candidates do not share their experiences or values, but “this year in particular, I think there are a lot of candidates who are reflective.”

Paul Gronke, a political science professor and director of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College, offered a different perspective. Gronke said Oregon has a highly educated electorate and attracts large crowds to political rallies.

“But then when you look at the political leadership, it’s so bland,” Gronke said. “Who’s the next hot shot in Oregon politics? I don’t know.”

Free postage on ballots?

There are few competitive state or congressional races this year, and many of the candidates have been politics for decades.

State politicians have pitched a variety of ideas to boost young voter turnout in Oregon. All three Democrats in the May 17 primary for secretary of state — the official in charge of elections — want the government to begin paying for postage for vote-by-mail ballots. The proposal was included earlier this year in a bill sponsored by state Sen. Richard Devlin, R-Tualatin, and Rep. Val Hoyle, D-Eugene, each a candidate for secretary of state.

“When I go to my children and ask them — who are both of voting age — if they have a stamp, they look at me like I have three heads because they don’t use the mail very often,” Hoyle said during a hearing on the bill.

According to the legislative staff, the proposal would cost $1.8 million in the next two-year budget cycle.

The Legislature didn’t pass the free postage proposal, but did approve legislation that will require a ballot drop box within four miles of every public university and community college campus in the state.

Gronke said he was skeptical of the claim it is inconvenient or unfamiliar for young people to purchase stamps, which are available at grocery stores and other locations.

Democratic candidate Brad Avakian, the state’s labor commissioner, wants to revive the state-paid postage proposal. He also wants to require mock elections and a new civics curriculum in public middle and high schools.

According to Avakian’s website, “This education will lead to higher voter turnout, greater civic engagement, and stronger communities.”

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: HILLARY BORRUD/EO MEDIA GROUP - Willamette University students Nick Wagener, 21, and Taneesh Sra, 21, said they are excited to vote in the November presidential election.

More radical, 'which isn't good'

The League of Women Voters of Oregon already has a mock election program in many schools, and Gronke said there is some evidence that mock elections can encourage voter participation.

Across the street from Oregon’s Capitol, students relaxing at a coffee shop at Willamette University said they were excited to vote in the presidential election.

“It’s been kind of scary, because I didn’t think Trump would make it this far,” said Taneesh Sra, 21, who said this will be the second election in which she votes.

Nick Wagener, 21, said he voted in 2012 and is excited to vote again this year, even though “you see both sides getting more radical, which isn’t good.” Wagener said this prevents politicians from tackling important issues.

Nastja Nykaza, 19, said she plans to vote but does not feel like she can make much of a difference. “I would like to think so, but I’m kind of pessimistic about that type of thing,” Nykaza said.

Miles MacClure, 19, agreed and said news coverage gave some candidates an unfair advantage. “The corporate media is an advertising tool for candidates backed by large corporations, like Trump and (Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton),” MacClure said.

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.