Open Primaries: A Primer


Many thanks to our intern, Megan Funderburk, for researching and writing this post.

This is the second post in an ongoing series about the issues in our legislative agenda.

A primary election is an election in which a party decides who they will nominate to run for a particular office. Democrats have a Democratic primary to decide who the Democratic nominee will be, and Republicans have a Republican primary to decide who the Republican nominee will be. 

Sounds pretty simple, right? Well…not so much. Many states are struggling to address concerns about their primary election system by answering questions such as:

Who gets to vote in these elections?

Should only Republicans vote for Republicans and Democrats for Democrats?

What about Independent voters or those that are unaffiliated?

Should voters be forced to simply forfeit their voice until the general election when the choices are considerably more limited?

Primaries are either open or closed, with variations within each of these models. States may use one type of primary for their state and local elections and a different type for their presidential elections. The basic types of primary elections are:

  • An open primary is a primary in which voters are not asked to declare a party affiliation on their voter registration form. At the polls, voters can choose which party’s ballot they receive regardless of party affiliation (or lack thereof).

  • A partially open primary asks voters to publicly declare which party’s ballot they would like on the day of voting which then registers the voter with that party. In most states with partially open primaries, voters may change their party affiliation on the day of voting.

  • A closed primary means that only those who have previously registered with a party may vote for that party’s nominees. In most states with closed primaries, you can’t change your party affiliation in the months surrounding the election.

  • In a partially closed primary, it is up to political parties to decide whether to allow unaffiliated voters to vote in their primaries while still excluding members of the opposing party.

  • A few states, like California, have adopted a “top two” primary system in which all candidates are listed together on the ballot and the top two, regardless of party affiliation move on to the general election.

Oklahoma currently uses a partially closed primary system. According to state law, party leaders are given the authority to allow unaffiliated voters or voters not registered with a party to vote in their nominating primaries. Parties make this decision every two years. The Oklahoma Democratic Party currently allows Independent voters to vote in the Democratic primaries. Voters must be registered with the Republican party to vote in the Republican primaries. Voters may choose to change their party affiliation but cannot do so between April 1 and August 31 in even-numbered years.

Advocates for an open-primary system argue that if everybody is given a voice at primary elections then it will increase the likelihood of more moderate candidates. According to the Oklahoma State Election Board, nearly 16% of Oklahoman voters are registered as Independent, and that number has increased nearly 35% over the past decade. With an increasing pool of Independent voters and a general dissatisfaction with hyper-partisan practices, moderation seems to be just what we need. Primaries are paid for with our tax dollars, yet we allow the parties get to tell us who gets to vote. There are pros and cons to each system, but an open system works under the assumption that everyone deserves a vote, even in a primary. 

Two bills related to primary elections were filed this year in the Oklahoma legislature: Bill HB1026 by Rep. Tadlock sought to make county sheriff elections nonpartisan in an attempt to remove some politics from law enforcement. Bill HB1153 by Rep. Grego sought to authorize counties to vote to make county elections nonpartisan, including county officers and district attorney. Both bills were assigned to the House Rules Committee, but neither were heard, and thus they are dead…for this year, at least.

Helpful links

Click here to view the Election Board’s “Online Voter Tool,” where you can confirm your registration, find your polling place, view sample ballots for upcoming elections, and track your absentee ballot. (Speaking of which, if you’re not already registered to vote absentee (aka “vote by mail"), you should, and you can do it online right here.)