The Oklahoma State Election Board announced last week that registered Independents will be allowed to vote in the Oklahoma Democratic Party’s primaries for the next election cycle, but the primaries for the Republican and Libertarian parties will remain closed.
The ranks of Independent voters are growing significantly in Oklahoma, up nearly 75,000 people in the last five years.
Oklahoma Democratic Chair Alicia Andrews said for her party – the decision to open the primary in 2016 and again in 2020 was about being inclusive.
“It gives Independents a little bit more say so they don’t have to wait until the general [election] - and we have a better chance of getting their vote if we allow them to vote with us," Andrews said.
One critique of opening primaries to outside-party voters is the final candidate picked may not align with the values of the party, but Andrews is not convinced.
“I’m not concerned that, you know, some Republican is going to register as an Independent to try and sway our outcomes. That seems like a lot of work when they can work over there to sway their outcomes," Andrews said.
The Oklahoma Republican Party and Oklahoma Libertarian Party have both decided to opt out of allowing Independents into their primaries. Chad Williams is the Chair of the Oklahoma Libertarian party.
“This is probably one of the more contentious issues that we’ve had as a state party is whether or not to open to Independents. The reason why it’s contentious is because the state doesn’t allow us to control any bit of our nominating process," Williams said.
He said an initial party vote in November would have allowed Oklahoma Independents to vote in the Libertarian primaries - but due to a dispute about the vote - it was invalidated. The decision was then up to Libertarian delegates from the 2019 Convention - who ultimately chose to close the primary.
Although the 2020 presidential ballot won’t include a Libertarian primary option for Independents - Williams said he doesn’t think it would be impossible in the future.
“If we had more delegates last year, there’s no telling, it could have been the other way," Williams said.
Oklahoma’s Republican party responded to KOSU’s question about their decision in a written statement by Chairman David McLain. He writes their primaries are designed to elect Republican candidates who reflect the party’s values - with the old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
The Republican party holds the majority of registered voters in Oklahoma at 48.2% - while Democrats represent about 35.4% and Libertarians - about .5% of voters.
The National Conference of State Legislatures labels Oklahoma’s primary election as ‘partially closed’ along with states like South Dakota, Alaska and Utah. This means state laws let political parties have the choice to allow unaffiliated or voters not registered within their party into their primaries - while excluding opposing parties.
This type of primary process can give parties more flexibility from year-to-year about which voters to include.
Oklahoma State University’s Dr. Joseph Anthony, a visiting professor in the political science department, researches political parties and voting behaviors - among other topics.
“These are very, in many ways, very localized decisions,” Anthony said.
He proposed two main reasons a party might choose to opt out - the first reason could deal with strategy.
“So they could be making this choice because they feel like they don’t really have a read on Independent voters in Oklahoma... Obviously Independent voters aren’t declared with either party so they are an ‘x’ factor," Anthony said.
The second reason may stem from this idea of dilution. In other words, the vote can be split if there is a larger pool of candidates - which could result in a candidate who is doesn’t reflect party values.