The Bus Project, a Democratic oriented get out the vote organization, is extolling the virtues of Motor Voter based on the primary voting results. Their press releases have been picked up by national news organizations and the press is including this misleading graphic.
The graphic is false.
It purports to show the great success of Oregon Motor Voter program and claims that automatically-registered voters had good turnout numbers in the May 2016 Oregon primary election. But it is based on several fundamental errors. And it entirely omits the turnout result for 84% of all Automatic registrants–the non-affiliated voters, of whom only 6% turned out to vote in the primary election (compared with 23% of traditionally-registered non-affiliated voters).
The graph seems to say that a higher percentage of Automatic registrants turned out that Traditional registrants. But, in fact, the overall turnout of the Automatic registrants was 18.7%. The overall turnout of all registrants together was 53.7%. That means that the turnout of the Traditional registrants was in excess of 53.7%. So how could that graph be correct? It is not.
First, the graph for “Independent Voters” is wrong. The numbers graphed are only for members of the Independent Party of Oregon, not for non-affiliated voters — who comprise 84% of all Automatic registrants. So the graph entirely omits 84% of all of the Automatic registrants and bases its conclusions on a population of only 16% of the Automatic registrants–the most politically motivated ones (because they bothered to join a party). In fact those 84% of all Automatic registrants had turnout rates of under 10% for every age category other under 60 (and only 13% above that). All of their turnout rates were about 70% lower than those of Traditional non-affiliated registrants.
Second, and maybe more misleading, even the very limited data on the graph (omitting 84% of all Automatic registrants) is misleading. The “increases” on the graph are in fact very small populations, while the “decreases” are in fact very big populations.
The Republican columns, for example, count as “Automatic” only those few persons who returned the postcard to the Secretary of State, choosing to register Republican. That was only a grand total of 2,671 persons out of 51,558 automatic registrants. (For the Democrats, it was only 4,776.) Yes, those who affirmatively returned the postcard to join a party then usually voted in the primary. But in fact 42,571 of the 51,558 Automatic registrants did not join a party, and the vast majority of them (94%) did not turn out in the primary at all.
And, under the traditional system, those few Automatic registrants do voted in the primary most likely would have registered to vote during the DMV process anyway, when they could also have joined a party. Under the new system, they are not allowed to register and choose and party during the DMV process. The result is that 84% Automatic registrants are not joining parties at all.
The fact is, motor voter probably decreased voting in the partisan primaries.
Through April, about 56,000 people were registered through motor voter, but only about 9,000 took the time to select a party after receiving a postcard from the State informing them they were registered. It’s that decoupling of registration from party registration that is the big flaw in motor voter.
Under prior law (the Federal Motor Voter Act of 1994) DMV was required to ask everyone if they’d like to register to vote. The DMV client was then given a card and they’d fill it out and give it to DMV to send to the elections department. Statistically about 75% of those voters would select a party at that time as well. Lets say that if those 56,000 automatically registered voters had been asked at DMV if they wanted to register, that 25% said yes and filled out a registratin card, and that 75% selected a party designation. That would be 14,000 new voters and 10,500 would have selected a political party and had been eligible to vote in the partisan primary. Remember, under Motor voter, only about 9,000 selected a party.
And while it’s great that many more people will be eligible to vote in November, 90% of the races in Oregon are actually decided in the partisan primary. Democrats are the overwhelming favorites Statewide and in the tri-county deep blue districts. And Republicans are dominant in most rural parts of Oregon.
So, all these new automatically registered motor voters who didn’t have the chance to select a political party may be able to rejoice about voting in November, but for most Oregon races, their vote has little power. In fact, it’s meaningless.
While I believe the intent behind Motor Voter was good, decoupling the act of voter registration from the selection of a political party in a State like Oregon with closed primaries and gerrymandered safe districts could be one of the most undemocratic acts we’ve seen here.
Perhaps the Bus Project should take a closer look at the unintended consequences of Motor Voter and propose some fixes in redistricting, primary reform, or other democracy reforms that would empower the voters that they are so keen on registering.