There was good news and some distressing news to report on Election Day from the Linn County Clerk's Office, the branch of county government that administers elections.
First, the good news: The office handled 54,000 ballots, which we're willing to bet sets a record for the most ballots cast in the county in a midterm election. (By contast, 45,024 ballots were cast in the 2014 midterm election, so we're looking at a big step upward — nearly a 20 percent increase.)
That stands to reason: Thanks to initiatives such as Oregon's motor-voter law, which automatically registers voters whenever they contact the Department of Motor Vehicles to apply for or renew their driver's licenses, the number of registered voters in the state is at an all-time high. In Linn County, that translates to almost 25,000 additional voters on the rolls in the four years between the 2014 and 2018 elections. (If you're curious about the actual numbers, here they are: Linn County had 87,362 registered voters at the time of this year's election, as opposed to 62,832 registered voters four years ago. That's nearly a 40 percent increase.)
Some of that increase is due to increasing population: The county's population as of 2017 census estimates was 125,047, about 7.2 percent more than in 2010. But population growth alone obviously can't account for all of that growth in registered voters. The state's motor-voter law certainly is a big factor in that growth, and likely the most important factor.
With that said, a big question about the voters who were registered through contact with the DMV was whether they would follow through and actually start to vote. On that question, the jury remains out, both in Linn County and statewide.
Statewide, although the final numbers aren't in yet, turnout for this year's general election appears to be right around 69 percent. To be fair, that sort of midterm turnout would be the envy of other states, but Oregon's vote-by-mail system tends to result in higher turnout. (And yes, this is another reason why other states should adopt Oregon's vote-by-mail system.)
And, like Linn County, the number of people in the state casting ballots in Tuesday's election likely set a record for a midterm, with more than 1.9 million Oregonians voting. But in terms of the turnout percentage, the 69 percent figure statewide is the lowest figure this century for a midterm election; it's almost 2 percentage points lower than the turnout in the 2014 midterm.)
In Linn County, the drop-off in turnout percentage was even more striking: Turnout in the county for Tuesday's election was just under 62 percent. (And, again, perspective is useful: A 62 percent turnout in a midterm election is big news in just about every other state.)
But that county turnout rate is almost 10 percentage points less than the turnout in the 2014 midterm, when more than 71 percent of county voters cast ballots. And, in fact, the two midterm elections before 2014 also featured turnout percentages in the low 70s or high 60s.
It remains for a political scientist to really dig into these turnout results to fully understand them. But our guess, based on these numbers, is that many people registered through the motor-voter law aren't particularly motivated to vote.
Now, none of this means that the motor-voter law was a waste of time. Oregon has a proud tradition of removing barriers to voting, and the motor-voter law is part of that praiseworthy tradition. (As other states grapple with issues surrounding voter suppression, you can see why it's been important for Oregon to move in the other direction.)
But these new voters on the rolls have the potential to reshape Oregon politics for generations to come — if a party or a cause or a candidate can figure out how to engage them. It might prove to be too great a challenge, but the potential electoral payoff is huge. (mm)