This year’s tidal wave of voter registration in Oregon, led by a significantly large surge from young people, could leave the state with its highest participation rate in decades.
A total of 2,293,959 voters, an all-time record, are now registered and eligible to cast ballots in the state.
But there’s a catch.
All of those newly minted voters — tens of thousands added by Oregon’s new automatic registration system or inspired by Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump — will still have to turn in their ballots by 8 p.m. May 17.
As of Thursday, ballots were pouring in at roughly the same rate as in 2008, when turnout in the primary topped 58 percent. That was the most since 1976.
“In the past, we’ve seen large numbers of young voters come in and register,” said Jim Moore, a political science professor and director of the Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation at Pacific University.
In 2008, Moore said young voters excited by Barack Obama‘s presidential run increased their registration numbers by 25 percent before the primary.
“But then what happened?” Moore said. “They simply failed to follow through by actually voting. That’s what we’ll be waiting to see this time. Will they really bother to vote?”
Only once in modern history, Moore said, have first-time voters turned out in significant numbers. That happened in 1972, when the voting age was lowered to 18 and the youth vote turned out heavily for Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern.
Still, at least the ingredients for a repeat are in place.
In Oregon, the number of registered voters ages 18 to 29 has increased 21 percent since September, according to The Oregonian/OregonLive’s analysis of Oregon’s voter database.
No other age group has seen even double-digit growth, with voters ages 30 to 39 coming closest, at 9 percent. Registration among voters 60 to 69 years old increased by only 2 percent since September, with 70- to 79-year-olds actually losing a total of 236 registrants.
Tom Munger, 34, isn’t a new voter. But he’s hoping more of his friends follow his example this year.
On Friday, when Munger was dropping off his ballot at Multnomah County’s elections office, he was all set to spread the news on Snapchat.
“I made a video to snap to my friends to try to get them to vote, too,” said Munger, noting this election has more “weight” than past elections.
The numbers also appear to underscore the premise that support for Sanders’ race against Democratic rival Hillary Clinton is driving the trend more than any groundswell for Republican businessman Donald Trump and his own outsider campaign.
Democratic registration surged 16 percent from September 2015 through April, with Democrats picking up 132,000 new voters over that span. Democrats now account for 42 percent of Oregon’s electorate, up from 38 percent less than a year ago.
Republican registration, by comparison, grew 7 percent during that period. But the party’s share of the electorate remains unchanged at 30 percent.
Overall, some 110,000 voters changed their party affiliations to Republican or Democrat this year, with the largest share looking to vote in the Clinton-Sanders race.
Non-affiliated, Independent Party and almost every minor party declined both in total numbers and as a share of the electorate. The Libertarian Party of Oregon, for example, dropped by 10 percent since September. The Oregon Progressive Party’s numbers fell even further with a 32 percent decline.
According to ballot totals tracked by the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office‘s website, only about 22 percent of ballots had come back as of Thursday, four full days before the election. That’s behind the 25 percent collected at the same point in 2008.
Secretary of State Jeanne P. Atkins, saying she’s “not in the business of prognosticating,” wouldn’t predict whether turnout this year will match or top 2008.
“But there’s clearly a lot of interest out there,” she said. “We have more registered voters than we’ve ever had before.”