By Jeff Harrison
In Oklahoma, primary elections are largely open to only voters registered with a political party.
The parties have the option to open their primaries. The Democratic Party has allowed independents to vote in the party’s primaries for the past four years. Republicans and Libertarians have not.
Some Oklahomans are trying to change that.
Oklahoma United for Progress, a non-profit organization, is seeking to open the state’s primary system to all registered voters. The group believes it will increase voter participation and reduce political extremism and reduce costs for elections.
The group hosted a panel discussion about open primaries last week at The Press restaurant in Oklahoma City. Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, Oklahoma Labor Commissioner Leslie Osborn and Open Primaries leader and attorney Jeremy Gruber served as panelists. Former State Sen. A.J. Griffin moderated the event.
Osborn, who was reelected as a Republican in 2022, said the current system gives too much power to the political parties. The Republican Party is firmly in control of the State capitol and all statewide offices. But for decades, Democrats dominated the Sooner State.
“Somehow, we have a real hard time coming to the middle, but the middle is where the answers are,” Osborn said. “In general, when I meet with constituents, they don’t want the extremes. They really want people that will work together in a bipartisan manner, in the middle. And our system doesn’t work for that.”
Almost 80% of the elections are decided before a general election, Osborn said.
“That means that a large segment of our population is totally disenfranchised from ever having a say and that leads to apathy,” she said.
Panelists believed open primaries can help reduce extreme candidates. Gruber said candidates would need to appeal to and represent a larger portion of the electorate, compared to the current system that allows them to target members of their party.
Bynum said he’s seen that personally in Tulsa since the city adopted nonpartisan elections.
Osborn survived a GOP primary challenge from former State Rep. Sean Roberts last year before cruising in the general election. She received the most votes of any statewide election that included a Republican and Democratic candidate.
“It shows that a tiny percentage is making up the decisions for things and we’re disenfranchising so many of our voters,” she said. “I truly believe this is bipartisan. I don’t think it benefits ‘R’ or ‘D’. I think it benefits citizens and makes better government.”
Bynum agreed, saying it is about increasing competition.
“It’s about everyone in Oklahoma getting to vote for the person they want to vote for,” he said. “If Republicans have the best candidates, then people will vote for them. If they don’t then they’ll vote for someone else.”
Gruber reminded the crowd that primary elections are paid for by taxpayers and not by private parties.
“Taxpayers in Oklahoma have spent hundreds of millions of dollars supporting primary elections over the course of the last several decades, but a growing number of Oklahomans who paid for these elections can’t participate in them. It’s just not right. It’s just not fair. And it’s just plain un-American.”
Gruber said it should also benefit parties to reach out to the growing number of independent voters in the state.
Oklahoma ranks among the bottom states in voter participation. In the 2020 general election, about 55% of registered voters cast a ballot. It was one of only three states that had less than 60% voter participation.
The state has seen growth in independent registration. About 414,000 of the state’s 2.25 million voters are independent. There are about 1.17 million registered Republicans and 655,000 Democrats.
Margaret Kobos, founder of Oklahoma United, said the organization is working to put the issue to a vote of the people in 2026.
Oklahoma United describes itself as a “grassroots, moderate Oklahoma movement with friends in all parties, prepared to step up to find common ground and get things done.”
The organization has hosted similar events in Tulsa.