On May 16, Salem voters elected three new Salem-Keizer School Board members and approved a $61 million police facility. Marion County Clerk, Bill Burgess, who is well used to running the numbers on elections, has reviewed preliminary figures and notes some differences between this and previous elections.

“Overall, we had a good turnout for a district election,” Burgess says, “and a lot of that has to do with bond measures. When there’s money on the ballot, it does tend to move people to vote.”

Jefferson voters gave a 41% turnout to reject a $14 million bond to construct and renovate school facilities. In Stayton, voters weighed in to narrowly approve a gas tax of 0.03 cents per gallon to improve 21 miles of aging streets.

For Salem’s $62 million police facility bond, 30% of Polk County voters approved the project by about 2 – to – 1. In Marion County, 8,046 voted against the measure and 13,052 voted in favor, for a total of 20,096 voters making the decision that will obligate property taxpayers for decades.

The May bond vote is in contrast to a similar contest on the November 8, 2016 General election ballot. At that time voters rejected a measure for a larger, $82 million police facility, by 34,172 votes to 30,997 votes.

These figures mean that the number of voters weighing in on the matter in November was three times greater than those who participated in the special (May) election.

74,032 Salem people were registered and eligible to vote in November, Burgess says. By May that number had risen to 75,165.

Voters often decline to participate in contests about things they have little personal knowledge of, such as contests for transit district or fire district boards, or library district directors or judges. But Burgess says voters were more involved in this May’s Salem-Keizer School Board election than they were in previous years. Although statistics show a Marion County participation rate of 24% of voters in 2017 and 25% in 2015, these figures don’t tell the whole story. “More people voted this year than then,” Burgess says, “but because of the Motor Voter law, the percentage is lower.“

Motor Voter is the voter registration law that took effect on January 1, 2016. It makes voter registration automatic, so people don’t need to take the personal initiative to fill out a voter registration card. Instead, eligible unregistered voters over 17 years old who visit the DMV are sent a mailing from the Oregon Elections Division explaining their options. It’s a system that means that if the person does nothing they are automatically registered as a nonaffiliated voter – a member of no political party.

Motor Voter has boosted voting lists across the state and has possibly encouraged some to vote; in 2015, 37,334 registered voters participated in the district election; in 2017, 44,699 participated.

This increase in election participation did not keep pace with the numbers of those newly registered to vote, however. In 2015 there were about 150,000 registered voters in the county; in 2017, 185,700.

Why didn’t more vote, given the increased voter numbers? Burgess says it may have to do with uninvolved young people. “30% of our new voters are under the age of 25 years. They are nonaffiliated and often don’t vote.”

In fact, ‘nonaffiliated’ is the fastest growing category of voters in the area. “’Nonaffiliated’ has eclipsed the Republican Party in the City of Salem, Burgess says, “and is soon to eclipse the Democratic Party.”