Ballots dribble into Oregon’s county election offices though turnout likely to pick up

Oregon voters have had their ballots for several weeks now, but relatively few seem to be motivated to pop them in a ballot box or in the mail.

Turnout among Oregon’s more than 3 million registered voters has been slow this primary, but it picked up a bit Monday, May 20. Oregon Secretary of State data shows that, as of Monday, about 590,300 voters had cast their ballots — less than 20%. That compares with nearly 38% who voted in the primary election in 2022.

Oregon has closed primaries, so nonaffiliated voters, who make up the biggest bloc at 1.1 million, have few high-profile races to decide. But for people registered with a party, this is a presidential election year, and those tend to draw relatively high turnout rates, especially if the battle sizzles to the end. That was the case in 2008 for Democrats, with Hillary Clinton competing against Barack Obama. When Oregonians voted that year, the race was still up in the air, and the primary election turnout climbed past 58%, the highest in a primary in decades.

But the situation is different this year, noted John Horvick, senior vice president for DHM Research, which conducts political polls and analysis. Former President Donald Trump seems certain to secure the Republican nomination, and President Joe Biden has effectively won the Democratic endorsement. Regardless how Oregonians vote, they won’t be deciding those outcomes, and that, along with widespread voter disillusionment, Horvick said, has dampened the mood.

“I suspect the turnout is going to be low, maybe historically low,” Horvick said.

State data shows that more of the 721,000 Republican voters statewide have voted — nearly 29% — compared with more than 26% of the nearly 993,500 registered Democrats.

Horvick said that’s historically been the case at this point in the vote. But he stressed that late ballots could pour in.

Late postmark rule

This is the second election in which voting falls under the new postmark rule. Ballots dropped off by 8 p.m. on Tuesday or postmarked by then will count. In 2022, county election offices were flooded with stacks of ballots at the last minute.

“It’s possible people are holding onto their ballots and mailing them in,” Horvick said. “We don’t have experience with this in the presidential primary.”

Oregonians also are not voting on a governor, which can be a draw. Gov. Tina Kotek has two more years to serve.

But three statewide offices are up for grabs and all of them are open races. Ellen Rosenblum, who was first elected attorney general in 2012, is retiring; Tobias Read cannot run for another term as treasurer, so he’s seeking to be secretary of state; and the current secretary of state, LaVonne Griffin-Valade, who was appointed in June by Kotek, is not seeking to be elected.

And while there are no U.S. senator races on the ballot, all six of Oregon’s U.S. representatives are up for election, and two of those races are especially competitive. U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer is retiring from the largely Democratic 3rd Congressional District that spans Multnomah County and a bit of Clackamas County, and two Democrats, Jamie McLeod-Skinner and state Rep. Janelle Bynum, are vying for the Democratic nomination in the 5th Congressional District, which includes Linn County, most of Clackamas and Deschutes counties and parts of Multnomah and Marion counties.

Horvick and other analysts expect the winner of the 3rd District Democratic primary to go to Congress, with another Democrat replacing Blumenauer. But the November outcome in the 5th District could determine control of the U.S. House. Nevertheless, Horvick said that doesn’t seem to be a big draw in the primary, at least not in Clackamas County. As of Monday, only 16% of Clackamas County ballots had been turned in — the second lowest in the state — while nearly 25% in Deschutes County had voted.

Multnomah County surprise

But the biggest surprise in this turnout, Horvick said, is in Multnomah County, where the district attorney’s race between incumbent Mike Schmidt and deputy district attorney Nathan Vasquez is drawing big money and interest. But by Monday, only 18% of voters in Multnomah County had turned in their ballots, the fourth lowest rate statewide.

“That race affects the issues that are most important to local voters, namely homelessness, crime and drugs,” Horvick said.

Another driver of votes is likely to be the election of Portland’s next government. But those races won’t come up until November. Still, Tim Scott, Multnomah County’s elections director, said there is still plenty on the ballot to motivate voters and that typically in Multnomah County residents vote late.

“We anticipate getting a large turnout,” Scott said. “In May 2022, we ended up with just over 36.5% turnout overall so if we continue to mirror the turnout curve for that election, that’s where we’ll likely end up.”

In the county and across the state, with many late ballots expected, some races are not expected to be called on election night. That was also the case in 2022, the first election under the postmark rule.

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and X, formerly known as Twitter.


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