Will One of the Nation's Most Partisan States Open Its Primaries?
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Oklahoma is as deep red as a state can get. Of the 2.2 million registered voters, over half are registered Republicans. But does this mean that voters outside the party shouldn’t have a say in who represents them?
Primaries are the most critical stage of the election process for most elections in the US, and in a state where half of voters are registered with a single party, most races are decided before the general election at every level.
Oklahoma law stipulates that primary elections are reserved only for party members by default, but the parties may decide for themselves to allow participation from independent voters. This is known as a semi-closed partisan primary system.
Nearly 20% of the registered voting population is told to sit out while their representatives are chosen for them in low-turnout primary elections, some of which may only advance a candidate from the majority party.
The issue of voter suppression in the primaries is exacerbated by the fact that Oklahoma ranks among the lowest states in voter participation in the general election. In November 2022, for instance, only 4-in-10 eligible voters turned out.
Oklahoma United for Progress (OK United) is a nonpartisan organization that is committed to a fairer and better electoral process for all Oklahoma residents. One of the solutions its members want to see transform state elections are open primaries.
“It’s a big thing to get some form of open primaries in Oklahoma,” said Margaret Kobos, CEO and Founder of OK United.
OK United has established a coalition of Republicans, Democrats, and people across the political spectrum to get behind primary election reform. The ultimate goal is to get the most viable reform before voters in an upcoming election cycle.
“Right now, we are continuing with our outreach, we are doing a lot of education,” Kobos said. “We have taken some initial steps to organize other groups and further collaborate with them, because in order to succeed it will have to be a massive statewide effort.”
She says she has actively met with people all over Oklahoma to build connections that will be critical to any open primaries ballot initiative. Right now, the exact initiative language or reform will be determined through the group’s ongoing efforts.
“We are devising a poll to help determine the language we’d want on a citizen petition,” she explained.
Getting primary reform passed in such a partisan-controlled process can be tricky. Anything that is perceived as a threat to the political status quo is immediately targeted by the people who benefit most from the system in place.
Oklahoma Republican Party Chair Nathan Dahm, for example, likened an open primary system in which voters can freely choose a party ballot to letting atheists vote for a church’s next pastor – a misleading analogy but one that could be effective in the Bible Belt.
“We’re finding common ground and the right solution that everyone can support and the people of Oklahoma will vote for,” said Kobos.
One of the groups OK United has collaborated with is the Oklahoma Academy, which Kobos explained is doing a lot of outreach. The policy group has recommended a nonpartisan top-two primary in the wake of a 2015 poll that found that three-quarters of survey takers would vote for it.
California and Washington conduct nonpartisan top-two primaries for statewide, legislative, and non-presidential federal elections. All voters and candidates, regardless of party affiliation, participate on a single primary ballot and the top two vote-getters advance.
Alaska has expanded on the nonpartisan primary by advancing the top-four candidates with ranked choice voting in the general election. Nevada voters have also supported a Top 5 or Final Five system that would advance as many as 5 candidates from the primary.
Nonpartisan primaries would eliminate concerns by Republicans -- like Dahm -- that Democrats could vote in their primaries, and vice versa – since everyone participates on the same playing field.
Voter sentiments can change over a short period of time. OK United hopes a new survey will shed light into how Oklahomans feel now, and if nonpartisan primary reform has the best chance of success on the ballot.
“That’s the key,” Kobos remarked. “Finding out what people want when they think about this.”
“Maybe they have never thought about this in their lives, but they do have this general impression that there is a lot of chaos going on and a lot of top-down policies instead of from the people. They feel it, they see it, and they read about it, but they really don’t know why..”
OK United has been advised on viable windows for a citizen petition push and what it would likely cost for the campaign to be successful. The last citizen petitions that were successful in Oklahoma, according to Kobos, were in the 8–10 million dollar range.
Kobos says the scale of what is needed combined with the many legal steps required to get a citizen petition on the ballot will likely make 2026 more realistic than the 2024 presidential cycle.
The group sponsored a burger night and town hall event on July 11 which featured a panel that included Oklahoma Labor Commission Leslie Osborn, a Republican, and Republican Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum.
Both Osborn and Bynum have been vocal about wanting either a nonpartisan primary or a partisan open primary.
Bynum saw first-hand the benefits nonpartisan elections had on Tulsa elections. He was initially opposed to the idea, reasoning that political parties exist to turn out voters and nonpartisan races would see a reduction in turnout.
“I was completely wrong,” he said. “This has not happened in Tulsa.” Now, he would like to see a similar system for statewide elections.
Bynum isn’t the only mayor of a big city in Oklahoma that supports open primaries. Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt also supports a fairer and more equitable process for voters not affiliated with a political party.
“We have a system that incentivizes inputs that are divisive, that are seeking to run to the extremes because that is who is voting in a closed partisan primary process,” he has stated in the past. “This inevitably yields outcomes that turns a lot of people off."
Kobos reported that the Burger Night drew an attendance of over 100 people. OK United plans to build off events like this in its ongoing effort to expand its coalition of support. "We just need to spread the message."