The unrealized potential of nonaffiliated voters
Oregon's nonaffiliated voters – those who belong to no political party – could soon be on track to outnumber Democrats, the state's reigning majority party.
Yet this massive voting bloc is nearly impotent in choosing candidates to run in general elections because they are excluded from participating in the state's Democratic and Republican primaries. Oregon is one of nine states in the country with closed primaries. The exception is the Independent Party of Oregon, which opens its primaries but has never had a candidate elected to state office.
Nonaffiliated voters "are a much more diverse group than most realize, particularly now that we have (automatic voter registration)," said Paul Gronke, political science professor at Reed College. "I think they can be a powerful force, but only if they assert their voice, and the problem with that is their diversity. They are not all 'middle' as you might think."
In last year's presidential primary many nonaffiliated voters and third-party members were spurred to join a major party so they could have a say in who stood in the general election.
Southeast Portland resident Erik Baldwin said he temporarily joined the Democratic Party so that he could vote for Hillary Clinton in the primary.
"I voted for the Democratic nominee because I didn't want the head doofus in charge to be elected," said Baldwin, referring to President Donald Trump.
Other nonaffiliated and third party affiliates switched to the Republican Party so that they could vote for Trump, according to voter registration rolls from several Oregon counties.
The process of changing party affiliation takes only a couple of minutes on the Secretary of State's website.
"It's a choice we all make, but I would love to have my opinion matter and not have to change my party affiliation to do so," Baldwin said.
Nonaffiliated voters who want to vote in a major party's primary have to become a member in time to receive a ballot. The deadline for the 2018 primary is April 24.
"Many people don't think about party registration or elections until we get close to a national election cycle," said former Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins, who now chairs the Democratic Party of Oregon. "What we saw in 2016 was that a large number of nonaffiliated voters got interested just before the primary and re-registered in time to participate. We would expect the same to happen in 2018 and beyond."
Portland resident John Andersen was another of those voters. After staying nonaffiliated for more than 15 years, Andersen said he registered with the Democratic Party in 2016 so he could vote for Bernie Sanders in the presidential primary.
"I moved to the Democrats to try to stop Trump in 2016 because I realized that the party structure — whether I like it or not — is the mechanism to get things done," Andersen said.
The number of nonaffiliated voters in the state has climbed annually since 2014. The state's first-in-the-nation automatic voter registration law boosted that growth dramatically when it took effect in January 2016. About 88 percent of the nearly 300,000 voters automatically registered between then and August 2017 are nonaffiliated with a political party.
The law, dubbed "Motor Voter" because residents are automatically registered when they get a driver's license or identity card from the DMV — ended the former practice of giving new licensees the voluntary option of signing up for a political party at the DMV. Voters now receive a card in the mail notifying them that they can register for a political party by returning the card or signing up on the Secretary of State's website. Only a fraction — 12.4 percent — of automatically registered voters chose an affiliation. The rest are largely nonaffiliated by default.
That suggests many of the new nonaffiliated voters are disengaged politically.
"The party that benefits (from automatic registration) will be the party, or candidates, that mobilize these new registrants," said Gronke, who co-authored a report on the landmark law earlier this year.
Nonaffiliated voters now make up more than 30 percent of registered voters, according to the most recent statistics from the Secretary of State's Office. As a comparison, Democrats, who make up Oregon's largest political party — account for more than 36 percent of registered voters.
Nonetheless, nonaffiliated voters are nearly voiceless in choosing nominees for general elections, especially in choosing their lawmakers for the Oregon Legislature. Nonaffiliated and third-party voters have no say in who wins the Democratic and GOP nominations. During the general election, they effectively can help decide only a handful of seats in Oregon's few swing House and Senate districts, said Rob Harris, an attorney who sits on the Independent Party of Oregon State Council.
Only 10 percent of legislative seats are in districts without a clear Democratic or Republican majority, Harris said.
"Nonaffiliated voters have almost zero power as far as selecting the Oregon Legislature because there are so many safe blue and red seats," he said.
The Democratic Party of Oregon and Oregon GOP appear no closer to opening their primaries to the nonaffiliated.
Oregon Democrats on Nov. 19 defeated a proposal to allow nonaffiliated voters to participate in their primary. They needed a two-thirds majority to make the change.
The party released no additional details of the vote on the proposal, but DPO Executive Director Brad Martin issued a statement saying that the party still shares a goal of reaching nonaffiliated voters.
"We still have many options by which nonaffiliated voters can choose to participate in Democratic primaries," Martin said. He noted that 19 percent — more than 125,000 — of nonaffiliated voters chose to join a political party so that they would be eligible to participate in the 2016 primary. Out of the more than 125,000, about 75 percent registered Democrat.
A majority of states have empowered third parties and nonaffiliated voters in the voting process in varying degrees, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Fifteen states, including Texas, have open primaries. Seven states allow political parties to decide whether to open primaries before each election cycle.
Three states — Washington, California and Louisiana — have top-two primaries in which all candidates are listed on all ballots and voters rank their choices.
Nine states open their primaries to nonaffiliated voters, but still close the primaries to third-party registrants.
Another six states have semi-open primaries.
Gronke, of Reed College, said a semi-open primary could be the best option for Oregon.
It gives voters more flexibility by allowing them to affiliate at the point of voting and to cast a ballot for one or the other major political party, he said.
"This is complicated in Oregon because we vote by mail, but it seems possible to implement it by sending a Republican, Democratic or any other party ballot to unaffiliated voters and they can opt to 'affiliate' by voting that party ballot," Gronke said. "This leaves the choice in the voters' hands."
Andersen, the reluctant Democrat, said he would like to see the political system change to give nonaffiliated and third-party voters more power in electing office holders.
"I don't see how it would change, but I could be wrong," Andersen mused. "When I was on active duty in the Air Force and went to East Berlin in 1987, I never thought the Berlin Wall would go down, and two years later, it was down."