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Washington County sees flurry of political party changes ahead of May primary

Closed primaries, divisive candidates spark voters to switch.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: MOLLY FILLER - Source: Secretary of State's Elections DivisionOregon’s closed primary elections and a pair of provocative presidential candidates have fueled a striking uptick in political party changes, mostly among nonaffiliated voters.

Joining or switching affiliation is always common before an open presidential election, but the number of changes so far this year is more than double what it was during the same period in 2008 — the last time voters got to choose a nominee from the main two parties.

The majority of voters — about 65 percent statewide — are switching to the Democratic Party, a trend that suggests momentum in Oregon for democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, according to some political analysts.

In Washington County, the boost to Democrats was even higher, with 69 percent of voters who switched registration signing up with the party. Within the county, Democrats picked up a net gain of more than 5,800 voters from the registration changes. The GOP gained nearly 1,200 voters, while the Independent Party dropped by about 550.

“It’s pretty clear voters are switching to Democrat, and I would guess it’s because they’re excited about Bernie Sanders,” said Jim Moore, a political science professor and director of the Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation at Pacific University in Forest Grove. “The evidence for that is 2008 when 150,000 new voters were registered for that primary. Most were Democrats. The vast majority was for Barack Obama.”

‘Motor voter’ law a small factor

About 33,500 voters changed their affiliation between Jan. 1 and March 15, according to the secretary of state’s office. About 15,850 switched during the same period in 2008 (and 12,500 in 2012).

At first glance, it might appear that the state’s new automatic registration law, which took effect in January, is driving the changes, but figures from the secretary of state’s office show that isn’t the case. An influx of new nonaffiliated voters were registered automatically when getting their state drivers licenses but accounted for only a tiny fraction of the changes in party registration through mid-March.

About 15,000 voters were registered to vote in January and February through the new “motor voter” law. Yet political party changes overwhelmingly are coming from longtime registered voters. Just 962 out of the 33,500 party changes between Jan. 1 and March 15 were newly registered voters, according to the secretary of state, meaning that something else is prompting the surge in switching.

Roderick Marshall, of Bull Mountain, changed his political affiliation from unaffiliated to Republican for one simple reason: GOP frontrunner Donald Trump.

“I changed so I could vote for Trump,” he told The Times on Tuesday. “I like most of his ideas, two of them being that we cut government waste and we get rid of Obamacare.”

Marshall, 47, said he will likely switch back to the Independent Party at some point.

Bill Currier, chairman of the Oregon Republican Party, said it’s not uncommon for strong feelings about candidates to spur some of these changes.

“Oftentimes, when people change their registration before a primary, they are sending a message to their party about the types of candidates who are running,” Currier said. “It’s a trend we have seen in other presidential elections.”

That’s the case for Richard Birmingham, 47, of Aloha, who recently changed his party affiliation from unaffiliated to Democrat.

It’s a change he has made before.

“Every time Hillary (Clinton) has been on the ballot, I have registered as a Democrat in the primaries so I can vote against her and try to limit her chances of making it to the general election,” he said. “I have very strong emotions with her past history and I do not trust her at all.”

Birmingham said he doesn’t like switching parties, but said it’s the only way to vote for the candidate he prefers in Oregon’s closed primary system.

“I think the closed party nomination is one of the craziest things I have heard of,” he said. “I remember questioning my mother about it years ago when I first started voting. If they would like a higher turnout with a more accurate account of everyone’s opinion, they would open up the primary to let us vote across the parties if we would like instead of going through all of this.”

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: MOLLY FILLER - Source: Secretary of State's Elections Division

Nonaffiliated had most changes

Democrats had a net gain of 17,419 voters in Oregon since the beginning of the year, while the Republican Party added 3,643 voters to its roster. Third parties sustained most of the losses in the political party shifts. The Independent Party of Oregon, for example, lost a net 2,482 voters during party changes since January.

Nonaffiliated voters account for more than half of political party changes. About 17,788 nonaffiliated voters joined a party between Jan. 1 and March 15, and 80 percent of those picked the Democratic Party statewide.

In Washington County, the pattern held, though not quite as dramatically, with 76 percent of nonaffiliated voters switching to the Democratic Party and 21 percent picking the GOP.

“What it primarily reflects is something we have known forever, and that is there are not really unaffiliated voters,” said Moore. “They don’t register with a party because they’re angry or don’t want a label, but they tend to vote just like the rest of the state.”

Portland resident Ella Ann Dawley, 24, said she identifies as an independent but has twice changed her affiliation to vote for a Democrat in the primary election. She voted for Obama in 2012.

“I plan to vote for Bernie,” Dawley said. “If Hillary wins, I will vote for her.”

In the scheme of things, party changes among nonaffiliated voters are small. Less than 4 percent of the state’s 539,896 nonaffiliated voters changed parties. “They make a difference in a close election, but they are not going to change the nature of the Democratic primary,” Moore said.

Even the 150,000 new registrations in 2008 ultimately had no impact on the outcome of Oregon’s Democratic primary between Obama and Hillary Clinton, Moore said. In fact, it is common for some nonaffiliated voters to change their registration for every election and then change back when voting wraps up. Clatsop County Clerk Valerie Crafard said some voters make the perpetual shifts in affiliation simply to avoid political party mailings and phone calls between elections.

Portland resident David Lippoff, 67, said that during the years, he has switched back and forth from nonaffiliated to Democrat. This year, he joined the Democratic Party to vote for Clinton in the primary. He generally prefers to assess candidates on their positions, instead of their party, but he also finds perks in staying nonaffiliated.

“One of the reasons I changed to unaffiliated in the first place is I wasn’t interested in being contacted about everything the Democratic Party was contacting me about,” Lippoff said. “It’s nice not getting junk mail and phone calls. In all likelihood, I will go back to what I was after the election.”