Voter turnout in Malheur County edges up in county’s primary

Voter turnout in Oregon counties for the May primary election. (The Enterprise/Kristine de Leon)

VALE – More Malheur County voters participated in the May 2018 election than the previous midterm primary.

According to voter statistics from the state Elections Division, roughly 37 percent of Malheur County registered voters participated. That is 6 percent more voters than the 2014 primary.

Although Malheur County ranked 21st out of Oregon’s 36 counties, the county’s voter turnout was better than the overall state rate of 34 percent. The highest rates of voter turnout were in Grant (67 percent), Gilliam (60 percent) and Wallowa (61 percent) counties.

Gayle Trotter, Malheur county clerk, said that voter turnout generally drops off in midterm primaries. Historical voter statistics from the state show that voter turnout typically decreases around midterm elections and drops even lower during midterm primaries.

Trotter said that a variety of factors could be contributing to Malheur county’s low voter turnout. For one, non-affiliated voters who align with no political party account for roughly 39 percent of the county’s voting population but only 15 percent turned in their ballots.

“You need to have a party affiliation to get that party ballot,” Trotter explained. Residents registered as non-affiliated voters receive ballots that list only nonpartisan races and ballot measures, leaving them out from participating in the gubernatorial, congressional and legislative races.

Age can also affect voter turnout. Historically, voter turnout is low among the youngest age bracket.

Only 14 percent of voters aged 18-34 in Malheur County participated in the May election, compared to a 64 percent of voters aged 65 and older. The pattern of disparity between younger and older generation voters was also evident across Oregon.

“Our regulars seem to vote. The older generation has it instilled in them to vote,” said Trotter, describing the voting habits she has observed in Malheur County. “I don’t know why the younger generations don’t return their ballots.”

“I think primary elections are just very short on people,” said John Gaskill, chair of the Malheur County Republican Central Committee. “People are more likely to vote in the general election, and there’s just less interest in the primary election.” 

Despite Gaskill’s observation on voting habits, the Republican party pulled in the strongest representation of voters in the spring election. The party has 5,942 registered voters in the county, and 57 percent voted.

The county listed 2,474 registered Democrats, and 45 percent voted in May.

 “The Republican party is very strong in the county and can sometimes make people feel stigmatized for being a Democrat,” said Candace Shock, an organizer for the county’s Democratic Central Committee. As a result, she explained, Democrats in the county are less likely to be involved during election season. “People will try not to admit that they’re Democrats and try to hide it.”

“There are many closet Democrats who feel like they have no voice here or that there’s only one Democrat in the entire county, so they just feel outnumbered,” she said.

To mobilize more voters, Shock said that the Democratic Central Committee plans to reach out to the county’s Hispanic population and Treasure Valley Community College students. 

The Democratic Central Committee is not alone in efforts to reach out to unlikely voters.

Trotter said that the county clerk’s office has been making efforts to improve voter turnout among the younger age brackets.

“We send out letters to the government teachers at the local high schools when there’s an upcoming election,” explained Trotter. “Some seniors might turn 18 just in time for the election, so we usually remind their teachers to get their students to register to vote.”

Overall, Trotter thinks that the state’s vote-by-mail has increased voter turnout because it reduces the hassle of carving time out of the day to go to the polls. Indeed, Oregon consistently has one of the highest voter turnout rates in the country ever since it switched to an exclusive vote-by-mail system in the 1990s. 

Looking forward, Trotter predicted that the upcoming November election will attract more voters to mail in their ballots. 

“Locally, we have the potential for a ballot measure to repeal the countywide ban on marijuana, which could result in higher voter turnout rates in the November election,” she explained. “A lot of times, turnout is affected by the issues on the ballot.”

Gaskill said that the county’s Republican committee has plans to improve voter turnout.

“We try to urge people to be aware of the issues,” he said, adding that his group’s next big outreach event will be at the county fair. 

Both the Rpublican and Democratic Central Committees plan on hosting a voter registration drive during the Malheur County Fair, which opens at the end of the month.

Kristine de Leon: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.