IN 1960, the number of Oklahomans registered as political independents could fit comfortably in the combined, modest seating capacity of the performing arts auditoriums in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Today those independents would fill Chesapeake Energy Arena 12 times over.
Voter registration trends in this state carry two headlines. One is the rise of the independent voter. The other is the Incredible Shrinking Plurality of the Democratic Party. Having peaked in registration in 1989, at more than 1.4 million, registered Oklahoma Democrats now number about 888,000. Republican registration, meantime, is still climbing.
Trends indicate that GOP registration will surpass Democratic registration in a few years. But voter registration may be less significant than voter preference. Six weeks from now, the state will be one year away from a major election in which most statewide offices, five U.S. House seats and a U.S. Senate post will be on the ballot. Yet no credible Democratic candidates have emerged for most of those offices and perhaps for none of them.
The rise of the independent voter is phenomenal in a state where those who are registered as independent can't participate in the primary elections at which nominees are chosen. They can only wait until the November election and vote for either the Democrat or the Republican on the ballot — or the occasional independent, who has little chance of winning.
Thus, independent voters voluntarily surrender their right to choose candidates at the nominating level. Despite this, the state had more than a quarter of a million independent voters as the year began. Since 2000, independent registration is up by nearly 34 percent and Republican registration is up by about 16 percent. In the same time period, Democratic registration has fallen by more than 25 percent.
We suspect the decline would be even greater if voters were forced to renew party registration the way they do driver's licenses. Changing a registration isn't passive; it takes an action step. Losing one's registration is passive, however. The state purges the rolls of inactive voters on a regular basis.
The latest purge dumped nearly 68,000 Democrats from the rolls but also nearly 48,000 Republicans. In all, 145,294 names were removed; about 47 percent of them were Democrats. As of January, the party had 45 percent of all registrations. If more Oklahomans registered as a member of the party for which they usually vote, Republicans would already have a comfortable lead in registrations.
The rise of independent voter registration is likely due in part to the alienation that some voters feel from both parties, along with the gridlock and infighting in Washington. Either party could be more welcoming to independents by opening their primaries to independent voters, which they have the option to do.
They should do this — although we don't support open primaries in which Republicans could help choose the Democratic nominee for governor or vice versa. Some states allow this.
With the advent of Obamacare and as all the headlines about the reform scheme's train wrecks appear, the Democrats' Incredible Shrinking Plurality may worsen in Oklahoma. But disaffected Democrats won't automatically switch to the GOP. Many of them will issue a declaration of independence.