By: Ajinur Setiwaldi
The Oklahoma Democratic Party is making history this year by opening up their primaries to independent voters. Delegates at the state convention approved (314-147) the change in July 2015 and expect independent voters to participate in the party’s presidential primaries in March 2016. Registered independents will also be able to participate in democratic primaries for all state and local elections.
The sole purpose of primaries in Oklahoma is to “allow members of a recognized political party to select that party’s nominees to go on the General Election ballot,” according to the state government website. And the Democratic and Republican Parties in Oklahoma have embraced that principle until now.
In November 2015, more than 261,000 Oklahomans – 13 percent of the state’s registered voters – registered as independents may get the chance to help select a Democratic candidate to go on to the general elections. And that may mean more of the Millennial Generation (who make up a disproportionately large number of registered independents) showing up at the polls in upcoming primaries and general elections.
Oklahoma’s closed primary system has kept registered independents away from the polls during primaries and independent candidates off primary ballots. While the Oklahoma Democrats and Republicans have been allowed to select their respective candidates to participate in the general elections, independent and third party candidates must work harder to get on general election ballots.
For more than four decades, Oklahoma has required third parties to gather signatures from registered voters “equal to 5 percent of the votes” cast in the previous gubernatorial or presidential general elections. That law, in addition to its historically closed primaries, has put Oklahoma among the states with worst ballot access laws. But beginning this November, third parties have to only gather 3 percent – 24,745 votes to get on the ballot in 2016 – of the last votes cast in the last gubernatorial election thanks to a new law on the books.
When all candidates for a specific office are of only one party, then the race will be decided by members of that party alone in its primary elections, according to ok.gov. When there are candidates from both parties for the same office, then all registered voters, regardless of their party affiliation, decide the outcome in the general elections. This means that if there isn’t opposition from one of two parties or a third party, only some of registered voters may be eligible to elect public officials.
But even with the recent changes to Oklahoma’s election system, independents may remain disadvantaged. They still won’t be able to vote in the state’s Republican primaries. The Oklahoma Republican Party doesn’t look like it will be following the Democratic Party’s example any time soon.
Oklahoman Republicans predict the inclusion of independents in Democratic primaries will water down the party’s base. The change may also be a tactic to get independent voters to vote for Democratic candidates in general elections.
“Republicans should be reaching out to independents, encouraging them to read the two party platforms and register in the party that more closely aligns with their values,” said Steve Fair, the National Committeeman for the Oklahoman Republican Party.