Group seeks to allow independents to vote in any Oklahoma primary

As primary elections are underway, an organization in Oklahoma continues its campaign to repeal the closed primary process to allow those registered as No Party to vote in any primary election.

Margaret Kobos, founder of Oklahoma United for Progress, started the UnmuteOK campaign to promote potential legislation for an open primary system. To gain momentum, Kobos is trying to collect at least 5,000 signatures on an informal petition for future lobbying.

In Oklahoma’s closed primary system, political party committees can choose which political affiliations can run in its primary elections. This year, the Oklahoma Democratic Party allowed independents to vote on its ballot, while the Oklahoma Republican Party did not.

Without identifying as an independent, Kobos said leaving that decision to political parties is unethical, given that elections are publicly funded.

“You don’t take someone’s tax money and then take them out of the public interest – and that’s what we see happening with closed primaries,” Kobos said.

Last June, about 27,000 people registered as No Party voted in the primaries, with independents accounting for 16.3% of registered voters, according to the State Election Board.

In an open primary system, Kobos argues that the next August election would not be necessary and that a single election could determine all the results.

Voters fill out their ballots Thursday inside the Oklahoma County Board of Elections during early voting in Oklahoma City.  Early voting continues until Saturday.  On Tuesday, polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. statewide.

“You save considerable money, not only in the direct cost of administering the election, but also in fundraising for the campaign,” she said.

Kobos said she believes open primaries will increase voter turnout and the population of independents will continue to grow with growing political polarization.

“We all want to pick one person, the right person for representation. If we all pay for these elections, we should all be able to do that,” she said.

Increased polarization leaves some stuck in the middle

Tulsa resident Karee Brinlee had a similar experience when she changed her party affiliation from Republican to no party following Donald Trump’s presidency.

“If you look at the way politics has evolved, there is more hate in America. He changed,” Brinlee said.

She said that while she agreed with free enterprise and capitalism and did not consider herself a liberal, she did not believe the Republican Party valued the social issues she prioritized.

Charlene Newton fills out her ballot Thursday during early voting at the Oklahoma County Board of Elections in Oklahoma City.

“I think if you’re a real conservative, you want to promote business, good education, and freedom,” Brinlee said. “They seem more interested in attacking and fearmongering, and using LGBT rights as a weapon.”

Brinlee said her experience as a transgender woman has somewhat shaped the way she views politics. While she considered registering as a Republican to broaden her voting opportunities, she said some Republican politicians’ rhetoric on LGBT issues turned her off.

“I’m an independent now, but I don’t have a voice,” she said.

Closed primaries benefit some

Pam Pollard, Oklahoma committee member for the Republican National Committee, said the state has a closed primary system for a reason. From a business perspective, Pollard said political parties sell a product to consumers; the candidates are the products and the party members are the consumers.

“If we don’t have closed primaries, we now have to try to sell our products to several million people at once, and I think it’s unmanageable to do that,” Pollard said.

But closed primaries don’t just benefit politicians and campaign supervisors, Pollard said. Party definitions can compel citizens to learn about policies before voting and to decide whether or not to align themselves with a party.

However, Pollard dislikes the use of the word “independent” because it does not reflect Oklahoma’s current political system. In Oklahoma, residents have four choices when registering to vote: Republican Party, Democratic Party, Libertarian Party, and No Party. This “No Party” classification is key to understanding Oklahoma politics and the electoral process — and when someone registers under No Party, they revoke their right to run for office, she said.

“By all means, sign up as a No Party if you don’t know what to do, educate yourself and do your due diligence,” Pollard said. “But people in Oklahoma need to understand that no party means you can’t vote in a primary.”

She went on to say that the general election acts as a compromise, where everyone can vote.

“When OU allows OSU to choose their star quarterback, we will consider open primaries,” Pollard said.

The future of the primaries remains unknown

Several states have some form of open primaries with 15 states offering open primaries for both-party ballots. UnmuteOK and Open Primaries in New York continue to collaborate with the goal of advancing open primaries locally and nationally. Kobos said that in an ideal world, individuals would not have to limit themselves to one party’s values, but to organize their own positions through critical thinking.

“Oklahomas 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 on our own,” said Kobos.

The UnmuteOK private petition is available on its website.

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