Only 7% of Voters Have Returned Ballots in Oregon's Closed Primaries

Oregon Capitol Building
Created: 14 May, 2024
Updated: 15 May, 2024
3 min read

Photo Credit: George Meador / Flickr


Imagine being part of the largest segment of the registered voting population and being denied the right to an equal vote in elections. Well, millions of voters across the US don't have to imagine this because it is a reality for them in every election cycle. 

Particularly in states like Oregon, which has a closed partisan primary system despite the fact that voters registered outside the major parties outnumber registered Republicans and registered Democrats. 

Approximately 1.3 million registered voters (43% of the electorate) in Oregon are registered outside the two major parties -- 80% of these voters are specifically registered unaffiliated.

Meanwhile, 33% of the state's electorate is registered Democrat and 24% are Republican. 

Yet, despite being in the largest segment of the registered voting population, independent voters are denied a say in the most critical stage of the taxpayer-funded elections process while the state enforces minority rule.

Oregon's primaries act as de facto general elections in most contests because districts are safe for one party or the other -- meaning electoral outcomes are decided well before November.

And the state grants only partisan minorities the right to decide these outcomes.

IVP Existence Banner

This issue is made worse by the fact that partisan primary elections are often marred by low turnout -- and Oregon is no exception. In fact, it is experiencing even lower turnout than usual in 2024.

Numbers from the Oregon secretary of state's office show that with just one week left before primary election day, only 7% of the state's registered voting population has returned a mail-in ballot.

This is lower than at the same point in 2022, when 9.8% of voters returned a ballot, and 2020, with under 11% of voters.

These numbers represent a fraction of the electorate, and yet they are treated as normal in the state despite the increase in total registered voters.

To clarify, Oregon is a state that conducts its elections entirely by mail-in balloting -- so when reports talk about returned ballots, this is what turnout at the time looks like.

The decline in already low turnout is attributed to a couple of things, including the presidential nomination processes, which were a done deal for both major parties after Super Tuesday. 

Elections for Portland City Council also no longer use primary elections. Portland now has a system that conducts one election in November that uses ranked choice voting

There are, however, still elections that concern every voter on the primary ballots, including for Congress, the state legislature, Oregon attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer, and more. 

IVP Existence Banner

In many of these elections, the outcome will effectively be decided in the primaries because of how safe they are for one party or the other. Several legislative districts are so safe that they are uncontested this year.

The only election in uncontested races are the Republican or Democratic primaries, depending on the district. And the independent majority will have absolutely no say in the outcome of these races. 

Then there are congressional districts like Oregon's 3rd District, which has a D+22 in the Cook Partisan Voting Index (CPVI), and the 2nd District which has a CPVI score of R+15.

US Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D) in the 3rd District faces no general election challenge to re-election. He won in 2022 with 69% of the vote, dropping below 70% for the first time since 2002 when he retained his seat with 67% of the vote.

Similarly, US Rep. Clint Bentz (R) in the 2nd District won re-election in 2022 with 67.5% of the vote.

The only threat Blumenauer and Bentz have to re-election is in their respective party's primaries, which will be decided by an infinitesimally small percentage of partisan voters.

There have been attempts to reform the state's primary elections -- but these efforts so far have been unsuccessful.

Most recently, All Oregon Votes attempted to get a constitutional amendment that would implement nonpartisan primaries on the November ballot. The group has worked on ending independent voter suppression in state elections since 2020.

IVP Existence Banner

Statewide polls show that most Oregon voters would support an initiative to open primary elections, which is not a surprise considering almost half are denied the right to vote in them.

However, due to lack of resources, All Oregon Votes was forced to suspend signature gathering in February

Latest articles

Poll Shows Strong Support for 'Top Two' Measure in South Dakota
A recent poll shows that 55% of South Dakota voters support Amendment H, which if approved in November will implement a nonpartisan, top-two primary in the state similar to systems used in California and Washington....
13 June, 2024
2 min read
Washington DC
Report: Half of 2024 US House Races Already a Done Deal
Editor's Note: The following article on The Fulcrum and has been republished with permission from t...
12 June, 2024
3 min read
Arizona Initiative: Parties Can Either Accept Open Primaries or Pay for Them
Arizona is ground zero for a novel approach to voting reform that is not getting any attention from the national press, but could have tremendous implications for future elections and provide a fairer process for all voters -- regardless of their political affiliation. ...
12 June, 2024
5 min read