On the eve of Orange County’s first-ever vote centers opening on Saturday for people to cast their ballots, Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders took the stage under the beating sun in Santa Ana to give supporters in a key battleground county a shot in the arm.

More than 4,000 people flocked to the fields of Santa Ana Valley High School on Friday to hear Sanders – the Vermont senator who is widely considered the frontrunner among the challenger candidates this year – take aim at the national Democratic establishment, big companies on Wall Street, and current Republican U.S. President Donald Trump.

Sanders didn’t speak to the crowd about recent reports of Russian efforts to aid his campaign as a part of a bid to destabilize the U.S. electoral process.

But just moments before he took the stage, Sanders voiced concern to reporters over California’s No Party Preference (NPP) voters, who in the historically Republican Orange County comprise 26% of its 1.6 million registered voters while Democrats have gained the edge over Republicans by nearly 23,000 registered voters, according to recent numbers from the Orange County Registrar of Voters.

“Unfortunately, because of the complexity of the situation, most No Party Preference voters seem to be unaware that they have to request a Democratic Party crossover ballot in order to vote the Democratic primary,” Sanders said to reporters.

Sanders speaking to reporters during a news conference right before the rally. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

California’s more than 5 million No Party Preference voters under state law have restricted choices in the Presidential primaries unless they request Democrat, Libertarian or American Independent crossover ballots. The state Republican Party mandates that any unaffiliated voters who want a GOP ballot in a primary re-register as a Republican.

Sanders described No Party Preference voters as “the second largest voting bloc in the state, behind Democrats, and, very importantly are the fastest growing part of the California electorate.”

Sanders supporters waiting for the Democratic presidential candidate to step out and speak to the crowd on Feb. 21, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC
The Vermont senator is widely seen as the frontrunner among a pool of Democratic candidates seeking to run against current U.S. President Donald Trump, a Republican. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Local political experts have marked No Party Preference voters as crucial to determining key local elections in Orange County where the electorate has no clear Republican or Democratic majority.

In 2018, the county became a key battleground for control over Congress, with all four Republican seats flipping to Democrats last year and Republicans aiming to win them back this year. Meanwhile, a majority of local offices in the county are still held by Republicans.

The county’s Republicans are “pleased” that Sanders is the frontrunner, said OC Republican Party Chair Fred Whitaker in a phone interview Friday.

“We think he’s symbolic of what’s happening in the Democratic Party and why people are going to be coming back to the Republican Party,” Whitaker said, calling Sanders “so far to the left, he doesn’t represent Orange County or the nation. We are actually kind of pleased he’s the frontrunner in the candidate pool.”

This year’s primary marks a number of firsts for Orange County, and California as a whole.

The state has an earlier primary this year. Previously, it was in June until lawmakers in 2017 moved it up to shift the state’s national role during the primaries in determining the presidential parties’ nominees.

Meanwhile, Gov. Gavin Newsom this month signed a law that makes it easier for people to switch parties within the two weeks leading up to election day without having to re-register to vote.

At Friday’s event at Valley High School in Santa Ana, local resident and Sanders supporter Nathaniel Greensides said he and two other members of his family are registered as No Party Preference, though his other family members haven’t yet requested their Democratic crossover ballot.

Greensides seconded Sanders that a lack of informed voters who don’t know the downsides to their No Party Preference status could work against Sanders, but he also added that there are other key segments of his supporter population who “might not have the right to vote.”

In Santa Ana, there are people who “aren’t yet citizens, who are undocumented, or who aren’t of age yet,” Greensides said. “Those are the folks who aren’t registered.”

Rafael Návar, the Sanders campaign’s California director, said they’ve “focused intently on outreaching to voters to actually let them know what they need to do if they’re NPP to vote in the Democratic primary” — specifically “immigrant communities, Latinos, working class communities and youth.”

A child takes a small break during the Sanders rally, where just over 4,000 people were estimated to be in attendance. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC
Adriana Torres, 15, is a Valley Highschool student. “Not a lot of people care to come to Santa Ana, so I’m excited to hear Bernie Sanders speak at my school.”

Angel Marcial, an 18-year-old senior at Santa Ana’s Valley High School, said he isn’t registered to vote yet, but decided to volunteer at Sanders’ campaign rally at his school because he thinks Sanders’ calls for national rent control will resonate with the large portion of Santa Ana residents who are renters.

“He seems like a person who’s eager to help everyone out, including people in Santa Ana. Everyone in Orange County,” Marcial said.

Ten other students volunteered at the rally, he said.

Angel Marcial, an 18-year-old senior at Santa Ana Valley High School, volunteers at the Sanders rally. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC
A Bernie Sanders supporter holds up a sign at the Feb. 21, 2019 rally. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

“Under the current NPP participation rules, we risk locking out millions of young people, millions of young people of color, and many, many other people who wanted to participate in the Democratic primary but may find it impossible for them to do so,” Sanders said to reporters. “And that seems to me to be very, very wrong.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporting fellow. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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