State's closed primaries are challenged

OKLAHOMA CITY — Hundreds of thousands of Oklahomans are disenfranchised by this state's voting laws, Rep. Larry Ferguson charged Thursday.

“Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Libertarians, Reformists — whatever the political affiliation, they're being excluded from some election somewhere in Oklahoma,” Ferguson declared.

County and state elections this year provide myriad examples, the Cleveland Republican noted.

During the July 27 primary election, former state Rep. Leonard Sullivan was elected Oklahoma County Assessor exclusively by Republicans, since the only two candidates for the office were both Republicans. Consequently, more than 200,000 Oklahoma County residents — 157,844 Democrats, 45,183 Independents, 106 Libertarians and 7 Reform Party members — were excluded from voting in that race.

In Pawnee County, the sheriff was elected July 27 solely by Democrats; since no Republican filed for the office, Pawnee County's 3,163 Republicans were excluded in the primary from voting for sheriff, along with 670 Independent voters and one Libertarian. The same situation prevailed in neighboring Noble County, where the only candidates for sheriff were Democrats.

“The sheriff is an important officer; he is responsible for preserving the peace and protecting the lives and property of everyone in the county,” Ferguson said. “Yet 41.5% of all the registered voters in Pawnee County, and a little over half of the registered voters in Noble County, were precluded from voting in their sheriff's race,” the veteran state lawmaker pointed out.

Furthermore, Ferguson noted, less than half of the eligible Democrats in Noble County voted in the sheriff's race in the primary.

“I didn't hear any complaints about who was elected sheriff in Pawnee or Noble counties,” Ferguson hastened to add, “but I heard numerous complaints from people who didn't get to vote. The problem is that because of Oklahoma's closed-primary system, only members of one political party are often allowed to elect a public servant who represents everybody.”

Rep. Dale DeWitt, R-Braman, echoed Ferguson's observations. Almost 54 percent of the registered voters in Kay County, and more than 56 percent of the voters in Blaine County, were precluded from participating in the election of their sheriff because only GOP candidates filed. “I even had Republicans tell me they thought everybody should have been allowed to vote for sheriff” in Kay County, DeWitt said.

Furthermore, all 33 precincts in Kay County had to be opened and staffed last month for a closed runoff primary contest in the sheriff's race, Ferguson noted.

Only Democrats filed for sheriff in Mayes, Kiowa, LeFlore, Stephens, Custer, Carter, Delaware and Cotton counties, and Republicans alone elected the court clerk and the county clerk in Washington County.

Democrats elected both the sheriff and the county clerk in Logan County, to the exclusion of 55.7% of all registered voters in the county. Republicans elected the sheriff, county clerk and court clerk in Canadian County, where 48.35 percent of all registered voters were barred from participating.

The incumbent Republican state Representative in House District 95 (Midwest City) was re-elected in the July 27 primary to another term. As a result, 60.7 percent of the registered voters who live in that district were excluded from casting a ballot for their legislator.

During the Aug. 24 runoff primary election, Democrats alone elected new state Representatives in House Districts 4 and 7. Consequently, 35.6% of the registered voters in District 4 (Cherokee County) and 34.9% of the registered voters in District 7 (Ottawa and Delaware counties) had no voice in the selection of one of their state legislators.

“The biggest losers in this whole system are the 195,334 registered Independents in Oklahoma's 77 counties,” Ferguson said. “Their chance of getting to vote is slim to none.”

According to records maintained by the State Election Board, the number of registered Independent voters in Oklahoma has more than tripled in the past decade, from 58,759 in January 1994 to 195,334 in January 2004. During that same period, Democratic Party registration declined 22%, to 1,022,442, and Republican Party registration climbed 9.5%, to 720,121. Oklahoma also has 455 Libertarians and 25 Reform Party members.

“We urge people to vote — and then systematically exclude them from elections,” Ferguson complained. Only about one-third of all registered voters in the state participated in the primary election in July, State Election Board records reflect.

Ferguson, former House GOP Leader, introduced legislation in 1999 and again in 2001 to amend Oklahoma's closed-primary law, but his proposals died in the House Rules Committee. Both measures were identical:

H If only two candidates filed for an elective public office, and both candidates were from the same political party, the names of both candidates would appear on the general election ballot. That way, the choice could be made by all of the registered voters and not just the members of one particular party, Ferguson explained.

H If one political party had more than two nominees for an elective post, “and no other political party has a nominee for such office,” the two highest vote-getters at the primary election would advance to the general election “regardless of whether any nominee received a majority of all votes cast for the office.”

Ferguson would not tamper with the closed primary provision whenever candidates from two or more parties file for any office. “We don't allow crossover voting in primaries, to prevent the voters of one political party from helping to nominate a weak opponent in the primary to face their party's candidate in the general election.”

He simply proposes opening the election process to more voters when candidates from just one party file for an office. Another alternative would be to elect county officers on non-partisan ballots, the way judges are chosen, Ferguson suggested.

“There has to be a better way to choose our public servants than the way it's done now,” he asserted. “Instead of discouraging voters, we should be doing more to encourage participation in the political process.”

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