The primary problem of Oregon's motor voter law
Oregon has proudly pioneered election reform to increase voter participation. We were one of the earliest adopters of the initiative system and the first to vote by mail. In January 2016, we became the first state to automatically register citizens to vote. Since then, our "motor voter" law has registered more than 300,000 people, about 13 percent of all Oregon voters.
That's great. But motor voter's effectiveness in expanding voter participation is hobbled by Oregon's rules governing primary elections. With our next primaries less than a year away, it's worth looking at what we can do about it.
Motor voter automatically registers people to vote when they apply for, renew, or replace their drivers' licenses, ID cards or permits at the DMV. By default, all of these new "motor voters" are registered as not affiliated with any party. The state then mails these new registrants a postcard notifying them of three options: mail back the postcard to opt out of being registered, mail back the postcard to choose a political party, or do nothing — and remain a non-affiliated voter. Default choices are often powerful predictors of behavior, so it's no surprise that nearly 80 percent of motor-voter registrants have remained non-affiliated.
Democrats and Republicans once made up 98 percent of all Oregon registered voters. Motor voter is accelerating a trend away from that. Today, the two major parties make up just 65 percent of registered voters, while non-affiliated represent 28 percent and minor parties 7 percent.
Since the implementation of motor voter, more non-affiliated voters have been added to the rolls than Democrats and Republicans combined. In February, for the first time ever, there were more non-affiliated voters than Republicans. If the trends continue, non-affiliated voters will surpass Democrats within two years.
Why does this matter to voter participation? This growing share of voters who are neither Democrats or Republicans are prevented from voting in some of the elections that determine the future of our state: party primaries. Oregon has closed-partisan primary elections, meaning that only registered Democrats can vote in the Democratic primary, and only registered Republicans can vote in the Republican primary. Non-affiliated voters or members of minor parties are prohibited from voting in primary elections for candidates, from president on down to state representative.
There is a case to make for closed partisan primaries, but underpinning it is an assumption that the vast majority of voters are affiliated with one of the two major parties. That's no longer true in Oregon.
Because of motor voter, not only is the share of the electorate eligible to vote in primaries shrinking, but eligible primary voters are becoming less like the population as a whole. The average ages of Oregon Republicans and Democrats are 55 and 52 respectively, compared to 42 for non-affiliated voters. Among 18-34 year olds, 41 percent are non-affiliated and 9 percent are members of minor parties, meaning half of our youngest voters are prohibited from voting in primary elections.
Why does that matter? Younger voters are more racially diverse than older voters, less likely to use medical care but more likely to have college debt, rent their homes and have school-aged children.
Then there is party politics. Registered Democrats and Republicans are more partisan in their attitudes and preferences than non-affiliated voters. In other words, those allowed to vote in party primaries tend to be more dogmatic than those who can't.
The consequence of these trends is that an ever-shrinking share of Oregonians has the opportunity to vote in primary elections, which is often the only real contest where party registration is lopsided. Unless changes are made, key elections will increasingly be decided by older, whiter and more partisan voters. This will affect the types of candidates who run for office, the issues they advocate for, and how they govern.
Twice in the last decade, Oregonians have rejected ballot measures that would have allowed all voters — regardless of party affiliation — to receive the same primary ballot with every candidate listed. The two candidates with the most votes would have advanced to the general election, regardless of their party. This is the same system used by our neighbors in Washington and California.
Perhaps these ballot measures were ahead of their time. But with the continued increase of non-affiliated voters registered through motor voter, the closed-partisan primary is increasingly intolerable. Oregonians who rightly celebrate the success of motor voter should now seek to provide all voters the opportunity to fully participate in our elections.
John Horvick is vice president and political director of DHM Research, a nonpartisan and independent public opinion and policy research firm located in Portland, Seattle and Washington, D.C. Learn more at dhmresearch.com