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Richardson Axes Explainer On How Nonaffiliateds Can Vote In Primaries

<p>A Bernie Sanders supporter works in Sanders' Portland campaign office. Sanders won Oregon's Democratic presidential primary over Hillary Clinton.</p>

Nate Sjol

A Bernie Sanders supporter works in Sanders' Portland campaign office. Sanders won Oregon's Democratic presidential primary over Hillary Clinton.

Despite the rapid rise in the number of nonaffiliated voters in Oregon, Secretary of State Dennis Richardson plans to eliminate a mailing telling those voters how they can participate in the May party primaries.

Richardson's aides did not immediately return calls for comment. But in a series of emails with the Independent Party of Oregon, officials from the state elections division show they're planning not to send any notice to Oregon's 820,000 registered nonaffiliated voters.

Sal Peralta, secretary of the Independent Party, said the notice has become particularly important since the state started automatically registering people using DMV data two years ago.

He said the vast majority of those new registrants don't opt to register with a party — and many of them "don't even know they are registered to vote."

Since 2016, nearly 300,000 additional people have been registered as nonaffiliated, and their share of the electorate has climbed from 24 percent to 31 percent.

The Independent Party has qualified for major party status, along with the Democratic and Republican parties. And it's the only party that allows unaffiliated voters to participate in its primary.

Under the previous practice by the secretary of state's office, any open primary has triggered a mailing to nonaffiliated voters telling them about that option.

In 2016, then-Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins broadened the mailing to tell those voters that they also had the option of changing their registration if they wanted to take part in the Democratic or Republican primaries.

She said she wanted to do that in part because there was so much interest in the presidential primaries that year.

Atkins, now chair of the Democratic Party of Oregon, criticized Richardson for not doing the mailing.

"The more information voters have, and the more encouraged they are to participate, the better off we all are," she said, "so I think this is a loss."

Atkins added that she believes Richardson "has consistently downplayed the importance of voter education" since winning his office in 2016.

Richardson has taken several steps to reduce elections costs, and this could be another.

State Elections Director Steve Trout said in an email to Peralta that his office would take several other steps to tell nonaffiliated voters about the May 15 primary.

He noted that the secretary of state's website tells unaffiliated voters they can participate in the Independent Party primary. It adds that the Republican and Democratic primaries are only for voters "registered with their parties."

In addition, Trout said many county elections offices will also post this notice on their websites, and that the information will be included in the Oregon Voters' Pamphlet.

However, most voters will not receive the voters' pamphlet until after the April 24 deadline for changing their registration to participate in the Democratic or Republican primary.

Nonaffiliated voters can participate in nonpartisan candidate races and vote on ballot measures.

Copyright 2018 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.