July 1st, 2010 | by NIGEL JAQUISS News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, Politics

Oregon's Older Voters Rule: Phil Keisling's Take on the May Primary Turnout


Former Oregon Secretary of State Phil Keisling (above) recently circulated a fascinating, if depressing, review of who voted in the state's May primary.

His overall conclusion is that young Oregonians completely sat out the May contest. And here are two supporting bits of information from Keisling's analysis of the data released by Secretary of State Kate Brown's spokesman Don Hamilton:

1. "Oregonians 61 and older essentially have 6 TIMES the impact on our politics (at least, in the May primary election) as those who are 18-40. (54% of potential eligible voters, vs 9%)," Keisling writes.

2. "A 71-80 year old exercises about 10 times the clout as an 18-24 year old. (about 60% vote as a percentage of those eligible, vs 6% for the younger group," adds Keisling, a Democrat who served as Secretary of State from 1991 through 1999.

Here's Keisling's complete analysis:


1) Median Age of Voters.

The median age, of all Oregon voters casting ballots in the May primary, was about 59. The median age of those participating in the D primary was 60; in the R primary, 61.

The Independent party members who voted had a median age of about 57. The non-affiliated voters who cast ballots had a median age of about 52.

In other words, half in each category were OLDER than this, half were younger.

2) Party registration by Age group :

* Among those 18-24 or under, 40% are registered as NEITHER D or R (60% of those, in turn, are unaffiliated, the remainder in minor parties, mostly the Independent Party of Oregon)

* Go to the 18-30 demographic, and virtually the same applies (39% registered as neither D nor R). Use the 18-40 demographic, and it's still more than 1 in 3 -- at 37%

For voters under the age of about 38 (estimated), the single most likely registration category in Oregon today is not D, and it's not R. It's "Other"

Contrast this with registered voters 60-79. They are 85% "partied up" -- only 15% are NEITHER R nor D. Or to put it another way, voters 18-40 are nearly 3 times as likely to say "Neither R nor D" than those 60 and older.

3) Voting behavior by Party -- and by Age Group

45% of Oregon's 867K Ds voted, while 50% of Oregon's 662K Rs. voted. Among all other voters (mostly non affiliated, followed by IPO members), the turnout was about 25%. (Note/Vote By Mail "plug": this is actually impressive, since Oregon's I's are "closed out" of Oregon's primary system. This 25% is actually higher than most other states' participation by Ds and Rs and others eligible to vote in primary elections!)

Registered voters, most likely to cast ballots, were in the 71-80 age group. Fully 72% of those of this age, who were registered, actually voted. (72% of the Ds; 76% of the Rs; about 56% of the "Others"). Indeed, a 71-80 year old Independent voter, was more likely to have voted in the May primary than a Democratic voter younger than 60.

A voter in this "core group" (71-80) was 5 times more likely to have voted than a voter 18-24 years old. They were 4.7X more likely to have voted than a 25-30 year old voter, and still 3.22 times more likely to have voted than a 30-40 year old.

Voters aged 61-70 and 80+ were the next most likely groups to cast ballots, both at about 64% of registered. Combine all three of these older age co horts -- all voters 61 and older -- and you get a likelihood to vote of approximately 66%. So voters 61 and older, were overall about 3 times more likely to have voted than those 18-40.

4) Voting "Clout" by Age Group

The above numbers, dramatic as they are, significantly UNDER-portrays the "clout" of the older Oregon voter.

According to PSU population statistics, as of 2010 there were an estimated 720,000 Oregonians aged 61 and older. Of these, about 600,000 are registered to vote, and in May 2010 about 400,000 of them did vote. (About 66% of registered, and about 54% of "potential eligible")

Oregonians age 18-40 total total 1.3 million. By those sheer numbers, they should have TWICE the "clout" in an Oregon primary election.

But of those, only 670,000 are even registered. (Put another way, an 18-40 year old is only HALF as likely to be a registered voter, than a 61 and older Oregonian; and put yet another way, run into two 18-40 year olds on the street and only one of them will be a registered voter).

And of those 670,000 18-40 year olds who arre registered, only 121,000 actually cast ballots in the May primary. (About 18% of registered; about 9% of "potential eligible)

So 18-40 year olds have TWICE the number of those 61 and older, yet cast just 1/3 the number of total ballots as those 61 and older. Because they exercise their 'voting clout" far more than their younger counterparts, Oregonians 61 and older essentially have 6 TIMES the impact on our politics (at least, in the May primary election) as those who are 18-40. (54% of potential eligible voters, vs 9%).

If you were to narrow the comparisons to even younger cohorts, and/or focus on just the 71-80 year old "super voters", the comparisions get even more dramatic. For example, a 71-80 year old exercises about 10 times the clout as an 18-24 year old. ( about 60% vote as a percentage of those eligible, vs 6% for the younger group.)

This general pattern is well established. But the dimensions and scale of it -- and how it has arguably skewed even "older" over time" is, I believe, one of the most under reported stories in Oregon (and indeed, in American) politics.

And here's a very important fact that makes this not just an Oregon story, but a national one.

This is in a primary election where the overall turn out was 41% of all registered voters. Best I can tell, this made Oregon's turnout, to date, the highest of any state in the US that has so far held a primary election. Far more typical, has been elections with turnouts of closer to 20%, or even lower.

Put another way, an Oregon independent -- shut out of the primary election, eligible to vote only in non partisan races -- is MORE likely to have cast a ballot in the May election, than D or R voters in many other states (e.g, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, Texas primaries).

What is happening in THOSE states? What is the median age of voters who are deciding which R or D standard bearer to choose for the fall general election? And what are the stands such candidates competing for the R and D nomination prizes are taking, on such age-sensitive topics as entitlement programs like Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid funding? (Which along with financing the national debt and defense spending, is probably about 80% of today's federal budget)

Every state should be capable of doing these kind of statistical studies -- and quite quickly. (Oregon did its within 30 days of the May primary being over). Yet to my knowledge, no one has done anything like this -- at least, nothing that's been published that I can find over the last 10 years.

We can lament the anemic voting behavior of the "young voter" -- that is, anyone 40 or younger! -- till the cows come home. (And this is a pretty common lament). And we can also cross our fingers and/or depend on the vast hordes who didn't show up in May, deciding that in November they will participate in what will be a non-presidential year election.

And more certainly will vote in November. But to what extent? The participation rates of those younger voters will need to double -- if not nearly triple -- to allow a turnout figure that's close to even 70%. (We had 85% in the 2008 general election).

Or, will the ranks of the 18-40 year old voters "expand" to a lesser extent this time, and leave overall turn out at something closer to the 63% we saw for the Measure 66/67 election, where a much healthier 40% of 18-40 year old voters (extrapolated) turned out, yet the median age was still 55 years, as 71-80 year olds also bumped up to about 80% of registered)?

A final note (and please ignore if you've heard me beat this particular drum too many times before!)

I have long believed that who votes, and who doesn't, may have as much impact on how we talk about certain key issues -- not to mention, which issues get talked about at all -- than traditional "partisan" divides.

The reality I describe above, was actually the major reason that I personally devoted so much time and energy to the open primary. Even more than an interest to make politics "more moderate" -- whatever that means; I always preferred the concept of making them a lot more PRODUCTIVE! -- I wanted to make them a LOT more inclusive. I wanted to further encourage younger citizens to develop the HABITS of voting, earlier, in the elections most likely to attract their attention and interest.

Younger people will likely never vote at the same rates as their elders. But the "divide' is clearly getting worse (in everything except the 2008 presidential election, which may well be viewed by future historians as a genuine anamoly).

I think a major reason is that we have systems still in place that essentially say to younger voters in particular, "To participate at all you must first choose a side, either well before the election takes place (closed primary states) OR "OK, if you choose a side on election day THEN you can participate (i.e, can pick a D or an R ballot) . But once you do, you must stick within those boundary lines; you can't cross over."

I believe a fully open primary system, by removing these barriers, in recognition of the profoundly important trend that's happened in the last generation among young people (who increasingly don't join parties) would encourage far more of these voters to participate at the first stage. And once they "cross the barrier" -- they'll be much more likely to stay in that election. . (And if they still don't vote -- well, there's real virtue in not letting anyone use the "party registraiton" excuse any more!).

Perhaps just as important, it would encourage candidates to spend a lot more time speaking to these voters, and their issues, and views. (All savvy politicians understand the rough outline of what I've described above -- and they act accordingly in terms of what they say, and what they don't say).

As the nation debates (and many lament) all sorts of 'structural deficit problems" -- from unfunded public employee pensions to massive deficit spending and runaway health care and entitlement program costs, why do we continue to ignore the realities (and the reasons underlying) WHO VOTES (and who doesn't)?
 
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