STATE Rep. Joe Dorman, D-Rush Springs, wants to allow all registered voters to participate in primaries when there's no general election for a specific race. He argues that Oklahoma elected officials should be chosen by “a majority of registered voters,” not just those registered with a specific party.
Primary-only elections are “happening far too often,” he said, noting that at least 15 state-level candidates were elected in a primary this year.
Partisan concerns may drive this supposedly nonpartisan idea: Two state Senate seats in redrawn districts flipped from Democratic control to Republican control during primaries because only Republicans contested those elections. Still, it's true that low-turnout primaries give outsized power to those who participate, especially when those races are the endpoint of the election process.
But this is also true of general elections. Only a share of Oklahoma citizens truly chooses state and legislative officeholders.
Just 45.2 percent of Oklahoma registered voters participated in the 2006 general election. In 2010, turnout was 50.1 percent for the general election. The lower-turnout 2006 races saw Democrats elected to most statewide offices. The higher-turnout races in 2010 placed Republicans in control.
In both cases, a huge percentage of registered voters didn't actually select officeholders — because they didn't participate.
This doesn't make the system flawed. Citizens have the right to vote, or not, just as major-party candidates have the choice to run, or not. Dorman's idea has been kicked around in other forms for years. In 2005 and 2007, then-state Rep. Rob Johnson, R-Kingfisher, filed legislation to make county races nonpartisan. One argument for making that change was the number of one-party county races.
Democrats didn't exactly embrace Johnson's idea. At that time, they dominated county government outside of Oklahoma's metro areas, and those offices were often the unofficial farm team for Democratic legislative candidates. The bills went nowhere.