Commentary: Independent voters needed

Oklahoma’s Democratic Party is on the verge of having a stroke of genius. Party officials announced they’re considering opening primary and runoff elections to Independent voters at the party’s July 25 delegate meeting at Oklahoma City Community College.

The Democrats’ intent is clear: to be more inclusive, expand primary participation and draw voters to Demo-cratic candidates in general elections.

For years, Oklahoma Gazette has championed opening all primaries and runoffs to Independents, and here’s why:

A substantial majority of voters want to permit Independent participation in our elections. In May 2010, this newspaper commissioned a survey, which found that two-thirds of Oklahoma’s registered voters agree with the proposal.

The poll indicated two-thirds of registered Democrats, half of registered Republicans and virtually all registered Independents were in favor of the change.

In conversations with office holders and politically active citizens, I’ve seldom encountered anyone who is not in favor of Independents voting in primaries and runoffs. What objections there were came from hyper-partisan officeholders or the political operatives who elect them.

A Sunday editorial in the metro’s daily paper opined that the Democrats’ plan won’t make much difference. It characterized some Independent voters as “people who aren’t always that interested in politics” and “someone who has devoted little thought to political issues at all” and therefore would have little impact in primaries. I disagree.

Opening primaries to Independents should have a positive and much needed effect on voter participation. Recent election turnouts are trending from low to pathetically low, threatening our democratic form of government.

Participation of Independents in primaries and runoffs could encourage a broader field of candidates, which, in turn, will result in general election candidates of greater appeal to all voters.

In the last 25 years, registered Independents emerged as a potentially powerful group of voters. From a head count of 46,567 registered Independents comprising 2.4 percent of all Oklahoma registered voters in 1990, their ranks swelled to 261,429 by January 2015 — 12.9 percent of all registered voters.

So why are Democrats signaling the implementation of this change, yet the Republican Party has expressed no interest? For one thing, it’s fairly obvious that Republicans find themselves in the catbird seat — for now.

Democrat and Republican registrations are now virtually tied. In January, Republicans lead by 3,467 voters and a 0.2 percent margin. Notwithstanding the parties’ equal registration, current partisan election outcomes in Oklahoma are overwhelmingly Republican.

Since 1990, Independents and Republicans equally increased their proportionate shares of registered voters as Democratic registration declined. Why, then, would it not be in the Republicans’ interest to open their primaries and runoffs to those same Independents who left or avoided the Democratic Party?

There might be a deeper answer: This state’s Republican election politics appear to be greatly influenced by partisan operatives who seem to find their successes in low-turnout elections. The game plan is simple: Quietly identify hard-core voters who support their candidates, and then do everything possible to get them to the polls while doing very little to stimulate broader voter participation in the election.

That’s good for their candidates, who typically have relatively well-financed campaigns, but it’s bad for democracy. It stifles candidates who are outside the inner sanctum of party politics and are attempting to bring fresh ideas and mainstream positions to the election.

Primaries open to Independents would encourage more candidates from both parties apart from their ideological fringes and give all voters more politically moderate candidates in general elections.

The daily’s editorial also chided Independents for not voting in large numbers in general elections and offers “their indifference to politics” as the reason. The more likely reason for their apathy is the lack of meaningful choices.

Republicans should take note of the Democratic Party’s pending action. If it gives notice that it will open primaries to Independents, the Republican Party has until Dec. 15 to give notice if it, too, wants open primaries and runoffs.

If they don’t, Republicans must wait two years to do the same and their nomination elections will be closed to Independents in the 2016 election. Failing to do so could be a mistake.

Bill Bleakley is owner and publisher of Oklahoma Gazette.

Print headline: Seeking independence

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