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With a week to go, up to 29% of primary ballots may already be in

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Oregon Capital Bureau


The final week of Oregon’s primary campaign opened with a plunging stock market, an escalating abortion debate and heavy campaign spending.

But based on prior election turnout, the percentage of ballots cast could be approaching 30%. That leaves a large slice of the electorate beyond the reach of news and ads that might have changed their minds.

As of Monday, the Secretary of State’s Office website reported 211,268 ballots had already been returned for the May 17 primary.

The website notes the number is 7.2% of the 2,954,344 ballots sent to voters.

An updated total posted Tuesday morning reported 288,337 ballots were now in, or 9.8% of the total sent out to voters.

But based on historic trends, it’s very likely that nearly 30% of ballots that will eventually be counted have already been received.

Since 2000, Oregon elections have been exclusively vote-by-mail, with ballots mailed to registered voters, then returned by mail or at designated ballot drop sites.

Since the current version of the “motor voter” law was enacted in 2015, anyone getting a driver’s license and involved in other qualified interactions with the DMV are automatically registered to vote.

The default voter registration is listed as non-affiliated. A card is then sent to the registered address, giving the individual 21 days to return a request for affiliation with a political party. If the card is unreturned, the registration is sent to county clerks as unaffiliated.

The result has been a significant increase in the number of registered voters, ballots issued and ballots cast.

In 2020, a record 2,317,965 ballots were cast in the November general election, driven by the presidential election won in Oregon and nationwide by Democrat Joe Biden over then-President Donald Trump, a Republican. But voter turnout percentages fell yet again, with 78.5% of ballots cast, compared to 80.3% in 2016, 82.8% in 2012 and just under 85.67% in 2008.

Elections for Oregon governor are held every four years, in between presidential election years. A non-presidential year general election record of 1,873,891 ballots were cast in 2018 when Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, defeated former Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, for the state’s top job. But turnout was 67.8% in the 2018 general election, down from 70.9% in 2014 and just under 71.9% in 2010.

In Oregon, primary elections are closed, meaning only registered Democrats and Republicans can vote in the parties’ primary elections.

In 2022, the largest number of registered voters — more than 1 million — are non-affiliated. The ballots they receive include only non-partisan offices. That means they cannot vote for major party candidates for governor, U.S. Senator, Congress, the Legislature and many local offices.

The highest profile non-partisan position is Oregon Commissioner of the Bureau of Labor and Industries.

The result: In presidential years, primary turnout has declined in Oregon to 46% in 2020 from just under 54% in 2016, though it was just under 39% when President Barack Obama sought re-election as the Democratic nominee. By the time of Oregon’s primary that year, the race for the Republican nomination had been sewn-up by Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and only U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, still actively campaigning among the four GOP candidates listed on the GOP ballot.

Non-presidential year primary elections result in even lower voting. Just 33.91% of registered voters cast ballots in 2018. That was down from 35.90% in 2014 and 41.62% in 2010.

Adjusting for the increase in registered voters, the same percentage turnout as 2018 would result in an estimated 1,001,819 ballots cast in 2022. If the same percentage of voters cast ballots in 2022 as in 2018, then the 211,268 ballots that have arrived as of Monday would account for just under 21.09% of the total vote.

Adding the additional ballots reported Tuesday would put the turnout at 28.78% using the same formula.

The final results won’t start to be revealed until May 17 — next Tuesday — when voting ends at 8 p.m. and the Secretary of State, along with county clerks, release initial vote totals.

But a new law allowing ballots mailed on election day to be counted up to a week later means valid ballots could arrive as late as May 24.

“The new law could mean that very close contests will not be decided on election night,” Secretary of State Shemia Fagan said in a statement last week. “Even if the results come in a little slower, they will be accurate.”

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