Sanders campaign hopes major voter registration effort pays off in Oregon

At Bernie Sanders' Portland campaign field office, volunteers spent April getting independents and new voters to register as Democrats so they can vote in the Oregon primary. Now the challenge is to ensure they cast their ballots.
(Chris Megerian / Los Angeles Times)

If Bernie Sanders wins the Oregon primary on Tuesday, his victory will have been secured back in April.

Oregon has a closed primary, meaning anyone who wants to vote for a Democratic candidate needs to be registered with the party. The Sanders campaign, which has lost every other state with a closed primary, launched a statewide effort here to get independents and new voters to sign up as Democrats before the April 26 deadline.

Volunteers worked the phones, made the rounds at college campuses and staked out farmers’ markets, targeting places where the young and the liberal gather.


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“You say, ‘Hey, you’re feeling the Bern?’ They come over and register,” said Monte Jarvis, the Oregon state director for the Sanders campaign.

The number of voters who switched their party affiliation this year so they could vote for a presidential candidate in the primary neared 130,000, and most of them signed up as Democrats, according to the Oregon secretary of state’s office.

You say, ‘Hey, you’re feeling the Bern?’ They come over and register.

— Monte Jarvis, Oregon state director for the Sanders campaign

Although undoubtedly some of those new Democratic voters will cast ballots for Hillary Clinton, the registration effort could end up as the most critical part of the Sanders campaign in Oregon. The Vermont senator has been expected to pull off a victory here despite trailing Clinton by a wide margin in a recent poll.

Closed primaries have been a challenge for Sanders because his support has been stronger among unaffiliated voters, who often lean liberal or express skepticism of Clinton. The problem is compounded because young voters, who overwhelmingly back Sanders, are less likely to register with a party than their older counterparts, who are more likely to cast ballots for Clinton.


It’s a hurdle the Sanders campaign wanted to remove, or at least reduce, when it started moving staff members to the state in the month before the party-registration deadline.

Jarvis, the state director, previously worked for the campaign in Utah and Kansas, but he lives in Portland, where he moved to an eco-village more than a year ago.

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Volunteers targeted the university towns of Eugene and Corvallis, as well as Ashland, Bend, Medford and Salem.

Sometimes they placed calls from home; other times they gathered at field offices. Part of the challenge was simply explaining the closed primary process to voters.

“In order to cast your vote for Bernie, you have to be a Democrat,” Jarvis said. “There’s no other way to do it.”

Out of the 92,000 voters who signed up as Democrats this year, nearly 29,000 did so in the last two weeks before the deadline.

“It was great. It completely opened up our universe of potential voters,” said Kelli Kuhlman, a 28-year-old environmental researcher who helped organize squads of volunteers for the registration effort.

Now the question is what the new registrations will add up to. A recent poll from the Portland firm DHM Research showed Clinton with a wide lead in the primary, 48% to 33%. Even when the firm ran the numbers with higher turnout among young and new voters, two target audiences for Sanders, Clinton was still up by 7 points, outside the margin of error of 5.6 percentage points.

“I was surprised,” Jarvis said. “It was a stark contrast to what it feels like.”

John Horvick, the vice president and political director at DHM Research, said lags in data transfer meant it was unclear whether the poll adequately sampled voters who recently signed up as Democrats.

Either way, Jarvis said he hopes the poll is a reminder for the Sanders campaign to kick up their efforts in the final days before the primary and encourage voters to turn in their ballots. In Oregon, many ballots are submitted by mail or drop box.

“There’s usually a rush at the end,” he said. “We’re trying to do everything we can to make this rush as big as possible.”


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