A bunch of folks won in Oregon’s May 20 primary elections, but that doesn’t mean they enjoy the enthusiastic support of Oregonians. In fact, far too often a small number of Oregonians are determining the winners and losers in Oregon politics. Only about one-third of registered voters bothered to vote in the May primaries.
And this doesn’t take into account the fact that significant numbers of eligible adults 18 years and older are not even registered to vote.
In the hotly contested Republican primary for the U.S. Senate race against Jeff Merkley, candidate Monica Wehby captured 132,501 votes, 49.99 percent. That allowed her to overcome her principal challenger, Jason Conger, who pulled in 99,706 votes, 37.61 percent.
Wehby’s victory sounds impressive until you realize that there are 650,176 Oregonians registered as Republicans. That means Wehby won the primary with the votes of just 19.77 percent of registered Republicans. Those are the only people who can vote in Oregon’s Republican primary in the state’s closed primaries.
Votes in Washington County Commission races were similarly low. There are 284,138 registered voters in the county.For the nonpartisan Commissioner-at-large position, Andy Duyck won with 43,837 votes. That’s 15.4 percent of registered voters.
The fact is, despite Oregon’s much-vaunted vote-by-mail system, the May primary had one of Oregon’s lowest voter turnouts ever and turnout has been falling for years.
In races where there seems to be no real contest, motivating voters to turn out is damn hard. Jeff Merkley won the Democratic primary for U.S. Senator with 271,344 votes, just 33 percent of registered Democrats.
In other cases, it’s hard to get excited when there truly is no contest. For example, in three Metro races the incumbent candidates, Carlotta Collette, Shirley Craddick and Kathryn Harrington, had no opponents.
In some cases the ideological split in a voting district is so unbalanced, with Democrats or Republicans firmly in control, that going to the polls if you’re in the minority seems like a total waste of time. A Republican in Multnomah County may feel that way as may eligible voters in most Congressional districts in the U.S. According to the Pew Research Center, political scientists and analysts disagree on why so few House districts are competitive; some blame gerrymandering, while others say the district maps reflect a politically polarized America where people are more likely to live among those who think like they do.
Then there are the races that just don’t engage voters, where few voters feel any connection to whoever wins and probably couldn’t even name the incumbent if asked.
Of course, Oregon’s closed primary system is also a guilty party. With 648,146 Oregonians registered as Nonpartisan (nonaffiliated, minor parties & others), a number that’s been growing steadily, none of them can vote in a Republican or Democratic primary.
There’s also the growing disenchantment with politics and politicians in general in Oregon and across the country. In Kentucky, for example, turnout was only 26 percent in a nationally covered intensely competitive primary between U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and Matt Bevin.