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Closed primaries, provocative candidates spur flurry of party changes

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Sauvie Island resident Monica Fetzer, 54, recently ended her lifelong affiliation with the Republican Party and registered as a Democrat. She plans to vote for Bernie Sanders in the May 17 primary election.Oregon’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 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 — are switching to the Democratic Party, a trend that suggests momentum in the state for social Democrat Bernie Sanders, according to some political analysts.

“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. “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

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

That , however, could change, as the secretary of state's office sent notices last month that nonaffiliated voters must be registered with a party to participate in the state's May 17 primary election. They have until April 26 to register a change.

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 something else is prompting the surge in switching.

“In this case, the spike is greater than usual,” said Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins. “This election has been very high profile. People see it on their TV and computers daily. I think there is a lot of interest.”

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). Meanwhile, the number of registered voters grew by less than 12 percent, from 1.98 million registered voters in February 2008 to 2.21 million in February 2016.

Sanders, Trump driving changes

Candidates such as Republican frontrunner Donald Trump and self-described Democratic Socialist Sanders have sparked strong feelings among voters, which might be spurring some of the changes, said Bill Currier, chairman of the Oregon Republican Party.

“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.”

Sauvie Island resident Monica Fetzer, 54, recently ended her lifelong affiliation with the Republican Party and registered as a Democrat. Fetzer dislikes the name-calling and insults she has seen during Republican presidential primary debates. She also disagrees with some Repubicans’ denials about global warming and the party’s refusal to consider President Obama’s nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court.

“It’s not that I identify as a liberal,” Fetzer said. “It’s that the behavior of the Republican Party has been so despicable that I can’t be affiliated with it.”

She chose to register as a Democrat, rather than nonaffiliated, because she wanted to have a voice in the primary, and plans to vote for Sanders.

For the most part, voters such as Fetzer make almost no imprint on elections because the number of voters who switch between the Republican and Democrat parties is nearly equal. Democrats had a net gain of 17,419 voters 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, for example, lost a net 2,482 voters during party changes since January.

The changes also caused an exodus from some of the state's more left-leaning parties, including Working Families Party of Oregon, Pacific Greens and Progressives. In 2012, when Obama was seeking re-election against Republican nominee Mitt Romney, just 92 members of those three parties defected to the Democratic side. This year, that number jumped 17-fold, to 1,582.

Nonaffiliated voters had most changes

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.

“What it primarily reflects is something we have known forever, and that is there are not really unaffiliated voters,” said Moore, director of the Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation at Pacific University. “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 the 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.”


By Jill Rehkopf Smith
Editor
503-357-3181
email: jrsmith@fgnewstimes.com

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