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Record Number Of Oregon Voters Face Exclusion From Primaries

<p>Ohio Gov. John Kasich celebrates after winning the Republican primary in his home state on March 15, 2016.</p>

Matt Rourke


Ohio Gov. John Kasich celebrates after winning the Republican primary in his home state on March 15, 2016.

For the first time in more than three decades, the Oregon presidential primary may well feature competitive contests for both Republicans and Democrats.

But a record number of Oregon voters won’t be able to participate unless they change their registration.

Nearly a third of Oregon voters — 32.3 percent of the state's 2.2 million voters — are either unaffiliated or registered in a third party. And their number is growing as a result of a new automatic voter registration law.

Under that law, elections officials use motor vehicle data to automatically register people eligible to vote. These new voters are sent a mailing asking them if they want to join one of the parties. So far, most haven't responded and remain non-affiliated voters.

The growth in Oregon voters who belong to neither of the country's main parties has been robust. It's climbed by more than 5 percent in just four years.

In Oregon, both the Democratic and Republican primaries are open only to party registrants. The latest figures show that 38.3 percent are registered Democrats and 29.4 percent are Republicans.

Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins said county elections officials will send a letter to unaffiliated voters explaining how they can change their registration. They must do so by April 26 to vote in Oregon’s May 17 presidential primary.

“We have a lot of new people who will be coming into our system and we want to make sure that they know what their options are before that May primary," Atkins said.

Voters who want to change their registration can do so online.

In addition, the approximately 540,000 non-affiliated voters will be told they can request a primary ballot from the Independent Party of Oregon. That party last year qualified to become the state's third major party, allowing it to hold a taxpayer-funded primary. Unlike the Democratic and Republican parties, it is opening its primary to unaffiliated voters.

Voters who remain non-affiliated and don't want to vote in the Independent Party will still get a ballot for the May 17 primary, but it will only include nonpartisan contests.

Oregon counties will pay the estimated $118,000 cost of the mailings.

The remaining presidential contenders say they’ll fight through the end of the primary season. And in that case, the two front-runners — Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton — appear unable to gain a delegate majority before Oregon votes.

In most presidential election years, both parties have settled on their nominees before reaching Oregon. The state's primary last mattered during the 2008 Democratic primary contest between Clinton and Barack Obama.

Both candidates campaigned in Oregon, which Obama ended up winning. Oregon voters last had primary contests in both parties in 1980. That year, President Jimmy Carter and his Democratic primary challenger, Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, competed all the way to the convention.

On the Republican side, Ronald Reagan won the Oregon primary and his last major opponent, George H.W. Bush, dropped out of the race six days later.

Copyright 2016 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Jeff Mapes is a senior political reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Previously, Jeff covered state and national politics for The Oregonian for nearly 32 years. He has covered numerous presidential, congressional, gubernatorial and ballot measure campaigns, as well as many sessions of the Legislature, stretching back to 1985. Jeff graduated from San Jose State University with a B.A. in journalism.