Last week, the Bend Bulletin printed an opinion piece I wrote about Oregon’s recent primary. Below is a copy of the text.
By Knute Buehler
Voter turnout in this year’s primary election in Oregon was down significantly. It was the lowest in a presidential primary since 1960. Statewide turnout was less than 40 percent, and Deschutes County was only 36 percent.
Oregon’s Secretary of State blamed it on the lack of excitement for the presidential race. After all, Mitt Romney secured the Republican nomination before our election day, and the nominee for the Democratic Party is the sitting president.
This argument doesn’t hold up, however, when looking at the historic turnout in a primary year where an incumbent president is running and his opponent has already locked up the nomination. In these kinds of elections, there has been a steady decline since the 1960s. Clearly there are other reasons for this decline.
While presidential primaries are a big driver of voter turnout, perhaps we need to examine other factors at play and look for solutions to increase civic engagement that don’t rely on exciting races for Democrat and Republican presidential primaries. Three factors come to mind: The increase in non-affiliated and minor party voters; negative perceptions around campaign finances; and the growth of non-competitive legislative districts.
I believe the increase in non-affiliated and minor party voters plays an important part in decreased turnout. In Deschutes County since 2008, over 5,000 voters have registered non-affiliated or in a minor party. Across Oregon, since 2010, over 30,000 voters have registered non-affiliated or in a minor party. There are over 500 thousand people that fall in the category which is nearly 28 percent of all Oregon voters.
We need to find a way to enfranchise these voters in the primary. For example, allowing minor parties to open their primaries to non-affiliated voters and to participate in the May primary would allow nearly a half million people statewide to participate. Inclusiveness is the key and that is lacking right now.
Next, many voters are turned off by the role of money in campaigns. Measure 47 placed limits on campaign contributions and expenditures in 2006, and to date no court has overruled them. The current Secretary of State, however, refuses to enforce that measure, despite the fact that Oregon voters approved it. In my opinion, this is ludicrous. One elected official should not be the judge and jury on this measure.
Recent Supreme Court decisions on other laws do make it tough to limit contributions. I support amending the Oregon Constitution to allow reasonable limits on what individuals, corporations and labor unions can contribute to campaigns in Oregon. Until that time, however, we need to find different, innovative ways to encourage or compel candidates to shine the light on their contributors. I favor increased disclosure and transparency of major donors on campaign materials. We should make it as easy as possible for voters to know the names of a candidate’s biggest supporters.
Further, I would propose that candidates should only be allowed to appear in the Oregon Voters’ Pamphlet if they agree to contribution and spending limits. A candidate can choose between access to the top source of voter campaign information – the Voter’s Pamphlet – and unlimited contributions and spending.
Finally, nearly 25 percent of legislative races in the primary featured members of only one party. These seats were viewed as being so “safe” for one party that the other party just didn’t bother. We need to make legislative districts more competitive to energize more candidates and therefore voters. One way to do that would be a citizen-led redistricting panel. Instead of politicians selecting their voters, citizens would be able to chose their politicians.
Blaming low turnout on secured presidential nominees is the easy way out. Instead, let’s provide leadership and find innovative solutions to increase participation by all Oregonians.
(Original Bend Bulletin opinion here. Requires a subscription.)