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Study: Young voters often skip local races

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP FILE PHOTO - Gov. Kate Brown, then secretary of state, celebrates the opening of a new ballot box in Rockwood, east Portland. A new study from Portland State University says millenials are very unlikely to vote in local elections, calling into question civic representative democracy.

A new study out of Portland State University shows a dark trend for civic engagement nationwide.

Voters of the millennial generation show little interest in electing mayors, found co-authors Phil Keisling, director of PSU’s Center for Public Service and former Oregon Secretary of State, and Jason R. Jurjevich from PSU’s Population Research Center.

According to the study, voters ages 65 and older are 10 to 20 times more likely to vote in mayoral races than those ages 18 to 34. But overall turnout in these elections also is very poor — averaging less than 30 percent of registered voters, who themselves are a fraction of eligible voters.

Benjamin de la Peña, Miami-based director of community and national strategy at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, says the organization wanted to fund the study to explore the factors and consequences of this disengagement with the political process.

“If large segments of the city ... aren’t getting involved in local elections, then whose agenda is being put forward?” de la Peña asks. In Detroit, Charlotte, N.C., and St. Paul, Minn., “there really are large areas of the city where not enough people are voting. That tells us that when it comes to setting city agendas, it’s not a very representative democracy.”

De la Peña says the Knight Foundation, which was started by former newspaper owners to promote quality journalism and civic engagement, has also done a focus group study. It indicates the reasons millennials don’t vote is because they don’t feel they have enough information about local issues, candidates and government structures.

“Many of these areas are where local newspapers have disappeared and is there a connection?” de la Peña says.

Portland mayoral spokesman Dana Haynes, who worked in newspapers for 20 years, says he sees a different correlation.

“It is exactly the same problem in Oregon newsrooms, when I knew that the vast majority of my readership was 55 and older and white,” Haynes says. “Being aware of that, I had to be aware of pushing my coverage. ... It’s the same in government. We’re aware of who votes, but we have to be cognitive of serving the entire community in all its complexity.”

Although, Haynes admits that city events can be held in places more traditionally occupied by those with gray hair, such as a recent event at the Terwilliger Plaza retirement community in Southwest Portland.

“We do plan some of our talks around the folks who are listening,” he says.

Does voting come with age?

The researchers tracked voter participation in seven primary and general mayoral elections in four cities: Charlotte, N.C.; Detroit, Mich.; St. Paul, Minn.; and Portland.

Portland was an outlier in the results as the 2012 mayoral race coincided with the national presidential election, garnering a 70 percent turnout rate.

Jurjevich says this may have boosted Portland’s participation rate, but he also notes the study didn’t look at the discrepancy between voters who voted for president but didn’t vote for mayor.

Haynes, spokesman for Mayor Charlie Hales, says under-voting is a major concern for local politicians and causes. During the November 2008 elections, Haynes was communications director for Portland Community College, which had a bond measure out.

“Our campaign was focused pretty strongly on: don’t just vote for (then-Sen. Barack Obama), vote all the way down the ballot,” he says.

Nationally, three-quarters of mayoral races are held in off-years, Jurjevich says, which means there isn’t much polling data on them.

“We generally know very little about mayoral elections,” he says. “We just know less about who is showing up at the polls and less about the results as a whole.”

PSU’s researchers now are looking to expand this pilot study to a study of 30 U.S. cities to see what other data they can glean about who votes in mayoral races and why.

“Generally, in terms of turnout, a healthy democracy is predicated on high levels of voter turnout and people expressing their opinions and beliefs,” Jurjevich says. “The governance tends to be more equitable when you have more diverse voters going to the polls.”

Research confirms study

The Portland State University study is consistent with findings by DHM Research that young people both register and vote at a much lower rate than older people. Although the 2015 Oregon Legislature passed a bill to increase registrations, it may not change voting rates.

Portland-based DHM Research has surveyed voting patterns for many years. It has found that both registration and voting increases with age. Those between the ages of 18 and 24 have traditionally participated at the lowest level, with less than 10 percent registered and under 5 percent of them actually voting in two of the last four elections.

Registration increases with age, but does not reach the 50 percent mark until about age 45. Actual voting increases with age, but still lags behind the registration rate. Only around 40 percent of those between 45 and 49 traditionally voted in two of the past four elections.

Registration and voting rates continue increasing with age, with the oldest voters participating at the highest levels. Around 80 percent of those age 70 are both registered and voting at the 50 percent rate.

The registration rates are expected to change in the future because of the so-called motor voter bill approved by the 2015 Oregon Legislature. It automatically registers voters based on information on their driver’s licenses, with an opt-out provision. That does not mean actual voting rates will automatically increase, however.

Reporter Jim Redden contributed to this story.


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