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New group seeks changes in Oklahoma closed primary system

Oklahoma Watch

In an effort to increase voter participation and lessen partisanship, an Oklahoma group is pushing for electoral reforms that would change Oklahoma primary elections.


Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider - taking you inside politics, policy and government in Oklahoma. I'm Dick Pryor with Quorum Call publisher Shawn Ashley. For more than 30 years, Oklahoma's election system has been considered one of the most secure and most reliable in the United States. The process has changed from time to time, but the way Oklahoma runs elections and counts votes is a model for the nation. One aspect of the electoral process, though, is drawing new attention. Oklahoma's closed primary system. A new group is pushing for change and its leader is our guest. Margaret Kobos is founder and CEO of Oklahoma United. Margaret, thanks for joining us.

Margaret Kobos: Thank you so much for your interest.

Shawn Ashley: Margaret, what does your group see as the problem with Oklahoma's closed primaries?

Margaret Kobos: I could just get so revved up on this, but the bottom line is we are all seeing and feeling a gulf between policies and elected officials, including those who are honestly and sincerely trying to do their jobs to represent us and the people. And it's demonstrated in a lot of different ways. But there's a fundamental disconnection that is happening and it's fueling chaos, discord, low voter turnout and dissatisfaction with our state government. I think that Oklahomans deserve better, and I think they sincerely want the state to be a leader in every area. There's no reason why we could not be other than the system which rewards positions that appeal to a very small minority of registered voters.

Dick Pryor: And indeed, the vast majority of races are decided in the primary here or even before the primary. So why do you think the system needs to change?

Margaret Kobos: Well, I always find it interesting that we accept the status quo. We accept that, oh, well, this is just the way it works. The parties run the primaries and that's just how it is. We forget that we built this system in Oklahoma. We did not always have primaries with parties running them. They were actually formed - if you look at the history - in reaction to corruption and insider shenanigans to reward certain people in a very small group. So, the people of Oklahoma, as they did in many other states, decided, you know, we need to return the power to the voters and the people. We're going to set up this system so that the voters can choose a candidate. And the parties were opposed to that system because they wanted to continue the way they always had and choose their own candidates in a very secretive process without accountability to the people.

However, over time, as an institution, we have ceded the authority again to the parties, and we see a system where, you know, very, very small number of people are involved in party politics. And those are the ones who seem to have control over the agenda. Those are the ones who seem to decide what the policies are going to be. We know that they skip when they do campaigning door to door. They know who's registered, what, they skip the doors, and of the people who are registered independent, they are not required, nor do they spend any time or resources appealing to all voters. And so, you know, you're right in that the primaries are the most basic way to give people a voice, and that's what they were intended to do. And right now in Oklahoma we have a system which is what I call a default closed primary system in Oklahoma, meaning that the parties themselves may volunteer to include independent voters, but if they do not, if they do not take affirmative action to do that every odd numbered year, then it is deemed a closed primary.

So, for the last six or seven years, I think the Democrats have permitted independents to vote in their primaries. But Republicans do not. Libertarians do not. There are just many, many things that are wrong with that. You're paying for the elections and all the administration of it, and there's no reason why we should not all be able to vote and have the choices right in front of all of us.

Shawn Ashley: So what alternative methods are under consideration by your group?

Margaret Kobos Well, the Oklahoma Academy, I think it was in 2016, determined they have their regular town halls and they recommended a top two non-partisan primary system in which there would be a unified primary ballot and the top two vote getters would go on to the general. So, you would have a primary, but you would have half of the printing cost. Half of all of the administrative costs, devising a separate primary for different parties. Then you would have the top two vote getters going to a general election. If someone in the primary received more than 50%, there would be a winner outright. That's what the Oklahoma Academy recommended.

That would be an option. That is the system that is used in the city of Tulsa, city of Oklahoma City, and many other municipalities. It feels to me kind of like as if you were in high school again, where it's just an election. Everybody's on the ballot. You vote for the person you like. So, it's pretty simple. It's something that I think we all have experience with. It also might be an option to have an open primary system like Texas. And I just want to note here that of the contiguous states to Oklahoma, we're the only one other than New Mexico with a closed primary system. Everybody else has some form of an open primary system.

When we do outreach and education, I think a lot of people are surprised because Oklahoma really is an outlier in our region and also nationally in the way we administer primaries. That said, Texas, I think it's an interesting example because when you register to vote in Texas, you do not declare a party affiliation at all. You just register to vote. To me, that feels fair and straightforward. We should be able to vote and not be required to affiliate with a party in order to exercise that right, okay. Texas, when you show up to vote, you pick a ballot. They have separate primaries. You can choose a Democrat or Republican ballot and you are assigned to that party for that election period. You know, if there's a runoff, you can't switch parties. That's how they do it. I think that's an interesting example, because we can see that even though they do have an open primary system, it's certainly not a threat to their dominant political party of the day. If you were accustomed to and you really, really liked, you know, the party in power, you don't need to be frightened, I think, of an open primary system. On the other hand, I think it seems a little complicated and convoluted to have to be tracking people, you know, for that election cycle. So, you know, that's something else to look at.

There are other states that have partisan affiliations listed on their ballots. So, for example, the Oklahoma Academy version would have a nonpartisan primary system in which you would not designate yourself on a ballot. So that's another version where we would have a unified ballot, but everybody retains their party affiliation on the ballot, so you can see it. That might be an option, too. Those are just three off the top of my head.

Dick Pryor: Margaret, you are founder and CEO of Oklahoma United, part of a bigger movement. Who is behind the movement?

Margaret Kobos: That would be me. (laughs) So, I was a practicing lawyer. I've never been in politics. I'm not really interested in politics. I really am not. But I felt like I had to call my own number when, you know, in 2021, there was so much chaos and there's been so much dissatisfaction, especially when you talk about education in schools. And I've been here in Oklahoma my whole life. I just kind of got sick of it and I thought, somebody has got to do something. And I could see that the rhetoric and politics in the state government did not reflect the people I sat next to on the bleachers at the Little League games and the, you know, the school events, like nobody was talking about the things that the legislature seemed to be focusing on.

And so what I crave and what a lot of our supporters crave is a functional representational government. So, to us, the place to start is with an open primary system. Let's just start with having a fair, open voting system. Then we can point to results and we can at least say, well, I guess that's what everybody wanted and it was a fair system. So, I guess I guess that's what we're doing. You know, we cannot even do that today in Oklahoma because the people are not being represented. We're a grassroots organization. We're 100% Oklahoma. And we're finding a lot of support from people in the middle like me, who just want to solve the problem and move on.

Shawn Ashley: There's probably little incentive for legislators to change the system that worked for them that got them elected. So how does Oklahoma United plan to get a fix adopted?

Margaret Kobos: We do engage with legislators. We believe that they entered public service for all the right reasons. So, we always assume that. As an example, this week I met with a Republican legislator from a kind of I would call it a mid-sized city. And he told me that he really wants to connect with independents. And he asked me, what do they want? And I said, well, they really just want attention. I mean, you know, they want someone to listen to them. They want ideas and proposals that work for all of us. And he said, “well, when I was campaigning, I told my campaign that I wanted to walk up and I wanted to knock on doors of independents.” And he said, “I did it for half a day. And the independent houses, the people in those houses were so angry. And they just let me have it every single porch.” And he said, “so I tell my campaign, I'm never going to do that again." And I just told him, “you have to keep going with that. The reason why people are angry is the lack of engagement and the lack of attention.”

So, I actually encouraged him to lean in on that. And I do think that a lot of legislators want to do the right thing. We have made it easy for them to avoid 80% of us and still win. But I don't know that that that's serving them well. I think they recognize it. I, you know, the voter registration, even though people are always saying how Republican we are and I happen to be a registered Republican and always have been, it's really just 51%. But we all know that basically every level of government is controlled by the Republican Party. And then we have the lowest turnout in the country. Those elements, I think, are so important and tell us everything about where we are.

Dick Pryor: It seems you will have to go the initiative petition route to get something done. And as you mentioned, there's a lot of apathy about elections here. How do you convince voters that there is a better way and that they need to do something about it?

Margaret Kobos: Well, we are in the kind of the initial steps of looking into a petition. We are not the only group interested in seeing this happen. So, we're aligning with these other groups like the Oklahoma Academy and trying to find, you know, other partners who will join with us and prepare for signatures to make that happen.

So, our timeline is, you know, obviously in the future, two things are important. We need to preserve the pathway for a petition so that we have the ability to do that. Then we have to be ready and have the right form of open primary to present to the voters. So, we're going to be polling, we're going to do focus groups. We're doing a lot of listening sessions. We're going to pull this together. We're going to put it in front of the voters. And why would they vote for this? Because we're going to have a lot of marketing and many, many months of outreach in every community we can touch so that people understand it, even on the most basic level, which is right and wrong. You know, it is the wrong thing to exclude voters from primaries they're paying for. It is the right thing for everyone to be able to freely exercise their constitutional right to vote.

And there was a 2015 poll on this very thing, and it indicated that 74% after learning about primaries - the closed versus open - 74% said that they would either definitely or strongly be in favor of an open, nonpartisan top two primary. So, I think we have a very good chance. We just need to, you know, get everybody talking about it. And I think we're working on that and, you know, spreading the word.

Dick Pryor: Margaret Kobos, founder and CEO of Oklahoma United, thanks for being with us on Capitol Insider.

Margaret Kobos: Thank you so much.

Dick Pryor: For more information, go to a quorumcall.online. You can find audio and transcripts at kgou.org and listen to Capitol Insider where you get your podcasts. Until next time, with Shawn Ashley, I'm Dick Pryor.

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Dick Pryor has more than 25 years of experience in public service media, having previously served as deputy director, managing editor, news manager, news anchor and host for OETA, Oklahoma’s statewide public TV network. He was named general manager of KGOU Radio in November, 2016.
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