Most state and federal primary elections in the U.S. are divided up by political party, and many are only open to voters who are members of a party.
Reform-minded advocates and many political scientists say this system is not working. They say relatively small numbers of voters are selecting their nominee — often in a district or state that leans strongly toward one party, so whoever wins the primary cruises to victory in a general election.
The group Unite America underscores what it terms the "primary problem" with this finding: In 2020, "only 10% of eligible Americans nationwide cast ballots in primary elections that effectively decided the winners in a supermajority (83%) of Congressional seats."
Experts and advocates say this electoral process excludes voters and leads to more extreme candidates who mainly appeal to activists, and could be exacerbating partisan polarization.
That's why there is a movement to rethink how states set up their primary elections and how voters choose which candidates advance to a general election.
The topline: A new report from the Unite America Institute on top-two nonpartisan primaries in California finds that the reform has had positive impacts on electoral politics and governance. While the vast majority of states have experienced a decline in electoral competition and a rise in polarization in recent years, California has trended in a much better direction since reforming its primaries. Analyzing the state across several criteria, the report presents evidence that Top Two in California has decreased polarization, improved voter participation, and increased electoral competition.
I moved to Oklahoma this year, and it has been a pleasant experience. The people are kind, and the area offers a lot of big city amenities without the rampant congestion so prevalent in other areas of the country. As a veteran, I’m also encouraged by the large number of American flags flying throughout my neighborhood.
When I obtained my driver’s license and was asked if I wanted to register to vote, it was an easy yes. As I have for the past three decades, I registered as an independent, or more specifically selected the option “No Party.” What I didn’t learn until later is that registering as “No Party” locked me out of having my vote counted in the election that decides 95% of outcomes in Oklahoma, the primary. This doesn’t sit well with me, and I’d like to explain why.
Not affiliating with a political party is very common in the military community; 49% of veterans self-identify as independent or unaffiliated. I don’t think choosing a party is wrong, but for me being an independent started when I wore a uniform and swore an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies.” That oath felt more comfortable to uphold if I didn’t pick political sides. Now that I am past my time on active duty, I continue as an independent due to a belief in the common good and a dissatisfaction with the current entrenched politics industry that is self-serving, divisive and dysfunctional. I’m not alone here, with 80% of Americans disapproving of the way Congress is handling its job.
Unfortunately, Oklahoma’s closed primary system means selecting “No Party” leaves me and countless others unable to vote. I can’t name a single positive benefit to the residents of this state that comes from closed primaries, but there are plenty of benefits to the political parties who get to unilaterally choose who takes office. The power political parties hold over election outcomes is contrary to the principles on which this nation was founded. I’m not a constitutional lawyer, but I don’t think the governing documents of our nation require a citizen to “choose a side” before being permitted to participate as a citizen.
President George Washington, our first commander-in-chief and a veteran, went to great lengths in his farewell address to plead with us to avoid political party control over government, saying to us all that “the name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations.” Washington warned that artificial, self-serving tribalism, which empowers parties over people, invites foreign influence by sowing division. This is an eerily accurate description of some of the most dangerous challenges facing America today.
There are also practical considerations at play. As an Oklahoma taxpayer, I participate along with all Oklahomans in shouldering the cost of administering elections. My choice of “No Party” doesn’t excuse me from paying taxes, nor should it. But, this choice leaves me and numerous others who choose to not pick a party locked out of elections that we pay for.
Thankfully, the solution is simple: Open primaries that let all voters vote for who they want in every election. In such a system all candidates would participate in a single ballot, and those receiving the greatest number of votes would move to the general election. This system would retain a place for political parties who would remain an important and influential force for those who prefer them.
I find myself firmly agreeing with Margaret Kobos, founder of Oklahoma United for Progress, when she states “People in Oklahoma do have a strong independent streak, and we don’t like being told what to do. I feel like we’re capable of making a decision by ourselves.” I think it is time to let everyone participate in the political process.
Albert Einstein once defined insanity as repeating the same thing over and over and expecting different results. It is time to vote for people and not for parties, and opening the primary to all voters is an important first step.
Tony Stobbe served for 20 years in the United States Coast Guard and serves as a Veterans for Political Innovation Oklahoma State Leader. He and his family live in Edmond, Oklahoma.
Donate to Open Primaries Education Fund!
March 21, 2022
Several weeks ago, a Tulsa World column provided for sorry reading to anyone who cares about the future of Oklahoma — and especially for those who were graduated from Oklahoma’s public schools.
The piece from writer Bob Doucette (“Public education’s 30-year neglect needs a real cure, not half-measure treatments”, Feb. 13) called out the state’s woeful and depressing underperformance in education. The column detailed Oklahoma’s staggering failure in educating our most valuable resource — the state’s children. We sit at the bottom of all measures for educational attainment.
In the same edition, there was an op-ed from Margaret Kobos of Oklahoma United for Progress (“Oklahoma’s political middle could gain a voice with open primaries”) providing a potential curative to address the continued distressing state of our public schools.
While Gov. Kevin Stitt aspires for the state to break into the Top Ten, we are not likely to achieve this anytime soon. We are so far from being at the top that only sleight-of-hand, wishful thinking and obfuscation can convince anyone this is an attainable goal in the near term.
While it is a politician’s job to lead constituents to success and engage in boosterism for the state, our elected leadership is another example of politicians offering platitudes while failing to lead. They are misleading Oklahomans on our abject failure at encouraging higher student achievement. Their rhetoric is designed to make Oklahomans believe the unbelievable — that we can go from the bottom to the top if only they get reelected. A recent proposal to give every parent a piece of the public education budget to use as he or she pleases in the form of vouchers is another way of destroying public education.
Stitt would be well-served to admit our failures — the result of many years of Oklahoma’s failing to set education as a top priority — and set realistic goals to move us incrementally forward.
As the canard goes, “Rome was not built in a day,” and Oklahoma’s pitiful educational system will not be transformed by magical thinking. Stitt would rather spend time arguing with American Indian tribes about sovereignty and cutting taxes for those not needing any further tax cuts.
Stitt could take a lesson from a previous Republican administration. The last effort to improve educational attainment was when Gov. Henry Bellmon and the Legislature passed HB 1017. Unfortunately, fear of success led to an attempt to repeal it the following year. That attempt failed, but most of the reforms demanded in the legislation — increased teacher salaries, decreased class sizes, new infrastructure, enhanced teacher training, and many others — never took hold. These pesky reforms were simply too much for the bureaucracy to swallow or find the funds to undertake. Why worry with reforms and make the effort to offer quality education when 47th is good enough?
A potential solution to this longtime political failure is Senate Bill 1754. Sponsored by Sen. Lonnie Paxton, R-Chickasha, it would provide for open primary voting in Oklahoma. It has been referred to the Rules Committee, likely to be forgotten.
If this bill were to move forward, it would allow Oklahomans to avoid the partisan ghettos leading us into niche policy decisions that benefit the few at the expense of the many.
Hopefully, a similar bill will be introduced in the next Legislature. Oklahomans might find better leadership by expanding our ability to pick good candidates for office regardless of party affiliation. When we refuse to allow nearly 20% of our voting population (independents) to vote in open primaries, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to pick the best person for the job — people who could get the job done in areas like education reform.
The move of Joy Hofmeister from the Republican to the Democrat Party is an example of our current system’s dysfunction. She left because her party’s base would not elect her in the primary for governor. In an open primary, she would not have needed to change affiliation.
I believe many Republicans want high-quality public schools, but not enough of them are in the Legislature. If we want to tackle the great public problems of our time, we need pragmatic, idealistic elected officials. These public servants would be less beholden to the extremes on either side of the political spectrum.
A way to get there is by allowing citizens to vote for the candidate they regard as the best fit for the task at hand, regardless of the voter’s party affiliation.
By correcting a system that allows hyper-partisan politicians to take control and drive an extremist agenda, we can get to the pressing needs that can make Oklahoma the great state our current leadership says it wants — but fails to deliver.
Ross O. Swimmer, a Tulsa attorney, is a former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation and former assistant secretary of Indian affairs with the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. He is special trustee for American Indians at the U.S. Department of the Interior and a member of the Tulsa World Community Advisory Board.