SALEM - When it comes to concerns about voter turnout, the rhetoric does not always match the reality - at least in Oregon.
Today is the deadline to register to vote in the Nov. 7 general election, in which Oregonians will pick their next governor and decide the fate of several sweeping ballot measures.
So now, with the registration phase nearly completed, it's time for hands to start wringing anew about how to convince those people who are registered to actually cast ballots, which go in the mail starting Friday.
From Oregon senior centers to college campuses and even to cell phones, activists and elections officials are gearing up mobilization efforts to energize what is often called an apathetic electorate.
"A lot of people just don't vote, even though it's awfully easy to do so in Oregon," said Harry Lonsdale, of Sisters, the founder of Bend Research and one of the primary financiers for a ballot campaign effort to cap political contributions.
He suspects turnout is falling because people feel disconnected from the political system, or that their votes don't count because of the undue influence of big political donors.
Every two years, we hear how more voters are disengaging from politics. But is that true?
Statistics suggest the problem is not as bad as advertised.
State and federal figures show Oregon voters have remained engaged, at least when it comes to participation in November elections.
Oregon ranked as the nation's third-highest state in terms of voter turnout in the 2004 general election, according to a U.S. Census analysis of people who are old enough to vote.
Meanwhile, voter turnouts in the state - measured as the percentage of those people who are registered and actually vote - have remained relatively steady since the 1960s, according to Oregon Elections Division data.
The turnout in presidential elections has been close to 80 percent, and the turnout in off-year gubernatorial elections has been close to 70 percent.
In the 2004 election, a presidential year, 86.5 percent of registered Oregon voters cast ballots.
The biggest drop-off in the past 40 years occurred in 1998, when just 59 percent of those registered cast ballots.
But that was partly a function of a lack of interest in the governor's race, in which incumbent Gov. John Kitzhaber was widely expected to defeat Republican Bill Sizemore - and did.
But by the next gubernatorial election in 2002, the turnout was 69 percent - near its average for the past four decades.
"It is a myth," said Michael McDonald, a political science professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and the co-author of an analysis that debunks the oft-recited fears of falling voter turnouts.
Boosting voter turnout
The faulty statistics that have created the impressions of lower voter interest were not manufactured intentionally, McDonald said.
In many places nationwide, people who are ineligible to vote - either because they are felons or not citizens - were mistakenly included in the pool of adults.
As a result, it exaggerated the number of people who were opting to not vote by lumping them together with those who legally could not, he said.
The reworked numbers show that voter interest has ebbed and flowed based on the interest in the election - the 2004 presidential race proved to be a barnburner on both sides of the aisle, he said.
His findings "slayed sacred cows" in both major parties, he said, and particularly rankled advocates of campaign finance reform because they "cite the decline as a result of the evil influence of money in politics."
Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, the state's chief elections officer, agrees that many people have the wrong impression about voter turnouts.
Nationally, the numbers may be disappointing, but Oregon stands out - and the state is winning kudos for its outreach efforts, he said.
"We don't just want to say we're happy that we were third-highest in the last presidential election and not do anything," he said. "We want to do anything we can to encourage people to participate and vote."
In an attempt to get more young people to cast ballots, the state this year launched a program in cooperation with a Portland radio station that will send text message reminders to cell phones.
As of Friday - which marked the end of the first week - 118 people had signed up for the cell phone notifications, according to the Secretary of State's Office.
The service is free and aimed at young people, who remain the least likely demographic to vote, but people need to sign up.
The first of three reminders has already gone out, telling folks to remember to register by today. The next one will remind people to vote after ballots have been shipped, and the final one will be on Election Day.
The state also this year set up special private phones at all 36 county elections offices, where people who are blind or otherwise unable to mark their own ballots can make their choices orally. At the end of the call, a paper ballot is then faxed to that elections office for confirmation.
At a test run of the program during the May primary, a blind woman in Lane County was elated about completing her own ballot without having somebody else mark it, Bradbury said.
"She said it was the first time she'd ever voted independently," he said. "That makes the whole thing worth it, because there are a fair number of people who do not have the same independence we take for granted. It inspires me."
Bradbury has experience firsthand with a disability. He has multiple sclerosis, a degenerative bone disorder.
Both of the new outreach programs are funded with grants through the Help Americans Vote Act.
Bradbury credits the ease of Oregon's decade-old vote-by-mail system and sophisticated "get-out-the-vote" efforts for helping to convince more people to send in ballots.
That is not to say all is rosy, however.
If you're looking at May primary elections, in which partisan voters get to decide their nominees for the general election, then turnout is certainly down. A paltry 38 percent of voters cast ballots in the May 2006 primary.
The low figure can be partly explained because nonaffiliated voters are barred in Oregon from the biggest decisions on the primary ballot: Who should be the major party nominees, Bradbury said.
In terms of percentages, nonaffiliated voters are half as likely as partisans to vote in primaries, he said.
Portland pollster Tim Hibbits said the declining turnout in primaries is bad for democracy because it focuses the influence of the most partisan people, who do vote and ultimately set the slate for the November general election.
A ballot initiative was filed this summer that would have opened the partisan primaries so all voters could participate in the nomination process, but it fell short of the necessary signatures.
Bradbury, a Democrat, said he saw potential problems with that approach, but still would like to see more voters cast ballots in primaries.
Lonsdale said he is not swayed by the figures that suggest voters are staying engaged in politics.
As he collected 400 signatures on petitions for the campaign finance reform proposals he is promoting, measures 46 and 47, he heard a constant drumbeat that people are upset about government and tuning it out, he said.
Another issue that has been raised this fall is the specter of voting by illegal immigrants. Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron Saxton alleges that illegal aliens are voting in a television commercial that began airing earlier this month.
But there is "no evidence whatsoever" of any illegal immigrants voting in Oregon, said Mary Conley, a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State's Office.
There have been two cases in recent years in which non-U.S. citizens were caught trying to vote - but both of them were in the country legally. One was from Britain, the other from Vietnam, he said.
Felix Schein, Saxton's campaign manager, said Saxton does not have any evidence of illegals voting, but said that might be because the state has done little in the way of investigating such allegations.
"I have yet to hear a compelling argument from the secretary of state or governor that it is impossible or even difficult to register to vote illegally, whether by illegal immigrants or somebody else," he said.
A new study by the U.S. Elections Commission has found little evidence of election fraud, according to a story last week in USA Today.
George Mason professor McDonald said it's dishonest of politicians to try to fan controversies by alleging widespread voting by illegal aliens.
"What a stupid thing to do if you want to remain anonymous," he said. "We find some limited instances of people double voting or voting illegally or voting for dead spouses, but it's very, very rare."