Open primaries will lead to less extreme candidates

Full Tulsa World article available here


With the primary election on Tuesday, it’s become clear Oklahoma’s mostly closed system produces more extreme candidates, particularly among the dominant Republican Party.


Conservative candidates seek to out-conservative each other to the fringes to win the taxpayer-funded primary. This edges out candidates interested in more broad-based governing, prevents honest political discourse and focuses on divisive cultural issues. This system puts power in parties, not people.


We are encouraged by the efforts of Unmute Oklahoma, which has an online petition to build support for changing the state primaries.


Closed primaries also give unequal representation when only one party has candidates. Two statewide offices will be chosen by Republicans, the attorney general and state auditor and inspector. Four seats in the Senate, eight in the House and three district attorney races will be selected solely by GOP primary voters.


Going by the Republican voter turnout of the last two primary elections, those ballots represented only about 20% of the total eligible voters and about 48% of their party.


This was problem decades ago when the Democratic Party had overwhelming state control. It was wrong then, and it is wrong now.


Taxpayers foot the bill for primary contests, and many of them cannot vote in these elections. If the parties want to pick their nominees, they ought to pick up the bill. Or, they can find a new way to put forth candidates without public financing.


A national movement has taken hold to open primaries, especially since most are taxpayer funded. The goal is to generate more voter participation and broaden the choice of candidates.


Fourteen other states have closed or partially closed primaries. Oklahoma would be considered closed system if not for the Democratic Party allowing independent voters to participate in its primary.


Fifteen states have partially open primaries, meaning unaffiliated voters — not party members — can vote on any ballot. Fifteen states have open primaries, allowing voters to choose either primary ballot.


Unmute Oklahoma and former Congressman Mickey Edwards back the open primary.


“People ought to have as many choices as possible. They ought to have options. Instead, they’ve got to choose between a couple of people the parties have picked,” Edwards said.


Other models are gaining attention. A “Top Two” ballot is used in Washington and California. All candidates are put on the ballot with a party indicated; everyone votes, and the top two move forward. Those winners could be of the same or different party.


Some states have a top majority advancing to a general election. In those, all candidates are on the ballot with open voter eligibility. Those finishing within the top 51% progress to the next stage. That could be one, two or several candidates.


Another alternative would be to open primaries if the election determines the final winner.


Realistically, we are dubious that changes in Oklahoma primaries are soon to come because closed primaries benefit those currently in power.


Good thing Oklahoma has an initiative petition option, until lawmakers decide to take that away, too.