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Oregon will spend at least $3 million helping Republicans and Democrats vote by mail, but not the Independent Party of Oregon.

MULTNOMAH COUNTY PHOTO: MOTOYA NAKAMURA - Brian Kidd, better known as the Unipiper, wheels his way toward a Portland mailbox in order to post his mail-in ballot, which doesn't require a stamp. It's back to the minor leagues for the Independent Party of Oregon.

After two election cycles in 2016 and 2018 as a major party, the state's third-largest political faction is once again a small fish, with voting in the 2020 primary to be conducted online using a ballot system where voters rank their preferences, rather than picking one candidate per office.

Despite having 125,000 members, that means the Independents must pay their own way, even as the state prepares to shell out at least $3 million for Republicans and Democrats who vote by mail.

"Hacking is definitely the vulnerability that an online election might have," said Sal Peralta, secretary of the Independent Party of Oregon. "But we have to weigh that against our ability to make our process as open to as many people who want to participate as possible."

The downgrade in status is largely the result of the state's motor-voter law, which since 2016 has automatically enrolled Oregonians when they visit the DMV. Since then, the number of registered voters statewide jumped from some 2.2 million in the May 2016 primary to the 2.8 million who can legally vote now.

By 2019, the Independent Party's share of the pie dropped below 5%, the threshold set by the state for major party status. But the biggest gain by far was for Oregonians who don't belong to any political party — commonly called non-affiliated voters, or NAVs.

The number of non-affiliated voters has jumped from 529,000 in January 2016 to 969,000 as of March of this year — an 83% leap that puts the non-affiliated voters within arm's reach of the Democrats, the state's largest political party, who have 996,000 members.

MULTNOMAH COUNTY PHOTO: MOTOYA NAKAMURA - Don't forget to sign the back of your ballot envelope! Non-affiliated voters can't vote for candidates of either major political party during the closed Oregon primary.

"People have become frustrated and disillusioned with the two-party system, because it really isn't working for most people," Peralta said. "If you look at that group of non-affiliated voters, they really have no voice."

Meanwhile, Peralta said only a few thousand Independents will cast a ballot this year, compared to 50,000 or so in 2016, when they were a major party. As in past years, their ballot includes Democratic and Republican candidates who sign on with major tenets of the Oregon Independent Party platform, such as reforming the state pension system or campaign finance rules.

Ballots were mailed to every registered voter on Wednesday, April 29, ahead of the May 19 election.

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