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New "motor-voters" could sway Oregon races

Drivers visit an Oregon ballot drop box (SBG photo)

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Oregon has roughly 250,000 new voters who were automatically registered to vote when they got or renewed their driver's license this year.

Those "motor voters," who make up one-tenth of the state's registered voters, are expected to constitute roughly 5 percent of people who cast ballots by the Nov. 8 deadline.

That tiny sliver of total turnout won't upend the state's political landscape or be a deciding factor in most races. But those new voters may yet leave their mark on Oregon.

They could change the outcome in some of the closest races on the fall ballot, including apparent neck-and-neck battles for secretary of state and over the $3 billion-a-year Measure 97 corporate tax.

Pollster Mike Riley, in a survey commissioned by The Oregonian/OregonLive and KGW, specifically set out to find those new voters to plumb their views. Riley's polling found that voters who said they'd been automatically registered will likely cast about 5 percent of ballots.

And because those voters tend to be younger, more liberal and in line with Oregon's current trajectory, Riley said, that could skew votes toward Democrats and in support of left-leaning positions on measures.

For example, though margins of error were large, Riley found that voters automatically registered by the Department of Motor Vehicles were 20 percentage points more likely to favor Democrat Brad Avakian over Republican Dennis Richardson as Secretary of State.

One motor voter, Tom Riddle, says he's too new to Oregon to know whom he favors in the that race, or pretty much any other state or local contest.

But the information technology specialist has closely followed news about the presidential race and is eager to cast a write-in vote for his choice, Bernie Sanders.

He doesn't seriously expect Sanders to win. But he does expect the Democratic National Committee will get a message about how it should treat non-establishment candidates.

Riddle, 32, grew up in Oregon but lived in several other states since college. He said he's happy his native state had a system to automatically make him a voter when he moved back and got a driver's license about six months ago.

Nationwide, he said, "I think we should have automatic registration."

Oregon was the first state to approve motor voter registration. Since then, four others have followed, and dozens more are considering it.

The Oregon Bus Project worked with then-Secretary of State Kate Brown to push automatic registration in 2013. By the time the system passed the Legislature, in 2015, Brown was the governor who signed it into law.

The bill was approved on strictly partisan lines, over the objection of Republicans who complained using driver license information to register people to vote could lead to ID theft and undermine people's privacy.

Bill Currier, chairman of the Oregon Republican Party, said he thinks unregistered voters' impact on election results will be "negligible," because their numbers will be small and their vote choices will be highly unpredictable and perhaps unorthodox.

"These are people who were choosing not to vote for a reason," he said.

Nikki Fisher, executive director of the progressive Bus Project, said the group was looking to get more people, especially millennials, to vote. But she didn't disagree that many of those voters will lean left.

About half of Oregon's motor voters have turned out to be younger than 35. Fisher's group been working hard to mobilize newly registered voters to fill out ballots.

She contends many are highly interested in "holding large corporations accountable" with Measure 97 and in assuring funding for Oregon's Outdoor School programs, through Measure 99.

"We constantly hear about those issues from young people," she said.

So far, motor voters seem to be sorting themselves into two groups: The large majority, 89 percent, have been content to remain unaffiliated with any party — the default setting when the state automatically registers a voter. The rest sent back paperwork offering them the chance to pick a party.

The law also allows people to opt out of registration entirely. Nine percent of people who would have been automatically registered were not registered for that reason.

Fisher, citing turnout in the May primary, said motor voters who join parties are very likely to turn in ballots - slightly more likely, in fact, than voters in the same party and age bracket who registered on their own initiative.

Among automatically registered voters who joined a party, 50 percent became Democrats, 38 percent signed on as Republicans, and 11 percent joined the Independent Party of Oregon. The rest joined smaller parties.

Unaffiliated voters tend to turn out at far lower rates than partisan ones, and conventional political science says automatic voters who declined to register by party will prove even less likely to vote.

But those assertions are almost all based on patterns in states where voters have to go to the polls during voting hours on election day, a higher bar than filling out a ballot on one's own timetable at the kitchen table or over drinks with friends.

Paul Gronke, a Reed College political science professor who specializes in studying voting behavior, said the ease of mail-in ballots— along with Oregonians' general propensity to participate in civic life - could drive turnout as high as 35 percent to 40 percent among motor voters.

"If they get to half, that will be a huge accomplishment," Gronke said.

Gronke's estimate is far higher than smaller-scale experiments in other places have suggested, he said. Some of those suggested that fewer than 10 percent of automatically registered voters would cast ballots, he said.

Just because motor voters cast ballots, however, does not mean they will vote in down-ballot races, Gronke said. Currier agreed.

"Anyone who is new into the system is going to be less informed about these issues," Gronke said.

Researchers in Oregon and elsewhere plan to examine turnout patterns among motor voters to learn more about how automatic registration plays out, he said.

In addition, he said, several political groups are testing different get-out-the-vote strategies, as a real-world experiment.

They plan to check after the election for answers to an all-important question: How do you get people who didn't take the initiative with registration to follow through and vote?

Fisher said her group, the Oregon League of Conservation Voters and others are spending time trying to teach new voters, no matter their affiliation, about the finer points of Oregon's vote-by-mail system.

One key message: All votes remain secret. Even though Oregon voters have to put their names and signatures on their ballot envelopes, no one will see what candidate or measure a voter chose. Elections workers can tell only whether someone cast a ballot.

Volunteers also plan to tell new voters not to let the length of the ballot — with a host of city council races, tax measures, obscure offices and inscrutable charter changes — keep them from casting a vote in races they care about.

"We encourage them to vote from the top down the bottom," Fisher said. "But we tell folks they don't have to vote for everybody. They can turn in their ballot marked only for the races they want to."

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Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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