OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma Democratic Party announced Monday it will open its primary elections to include the state’s rapidly growing number of independent voters.
Mark Hammons, chairman of the state’s Democratic Party, admits party leaders are hoping to capitalize on this shifting political ideology by welcoming independent voters who have long been disenfranchised during primary elections. The party made the announcement on the 108th anniversary of Oklahoma’s statehood.
Traditionally, primaries have been reserved for registered Democrats and Republicans heading to the polls to select their party favorites. Those favorites then vie for votes in the general election when all registered voters are eligible to cast a ballot.
While Republican and Democrats still make up the majority of the state’s nearly 2 million registered voters, independents — those who choose not to identify with any party — now make up the fastest growing voter demographic in Oklahoma, officials said. Their ranks have swelled to nearly 261,000.
“We want to show that there is an ability to step away from partisanship, to be inclusive and to make a commitment to the selection of candidates whose first goal is representing people not simply getting elected, or not simply advancing a partisan issue,” Hammons said Monday.
Hammons hopes by including independents in primary elections, those voters will return to the polls in November invested in the Democratic candidate.
Whether that strategy will actually work is unknown.
It’s “very rare” for any state to alter its primary system, said Daniel Diorio, an elections policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“States are hesitant to mess with their primary systems,” he said. “They do it in rare instances.”
Eleven states operate open primaries, which allow any voter to cast a ballot, according the group. Eleven other states have closed primaries, which only allow registered party voters to participate.
Twenty-four states, including Oklahoma, have what experts describe as a “hybrid” system, which falls somewhere in between.
Oklahoma law allows parties to decide in November of an odd election year who to include in primary elections, he said. That same law also could allow Democrats to rescind its independent invite in the future.
Alaska has a similar law. In 2008 and 2010, Democrats there opened the state’s primaries to include independents, though Diorio said he didn’t know if the move actually increased turnout.
Oklahoma’s primary change will, however, increase the cost of statewide elections by about $150,000 per year to pay for extra ballots, said Bryan Dean a spokesman for Oklahoma State Election Board.
While, the number of independent voters is increasing nationally, Diorio said studies have shown that most independents lean toward one party or another. To find an independent whose ideologies are truly down the middle is rare, he said.
Democrat Scott Inman, House Minority leader, said the solutions to the problems facing the state don’t come from one party or one ideology. To improve, the state must welcome differing viewpoints.
“That can’t be done by excluding the voices and opinions of thousands of our Oklahoma friends and neighbors simply because they dare to declare themselves as political independents,” he said.
The first statewide primary where independents will be eligible to vote is the presidential primary March 1.