Oklahoma Democrats invite Independents into party primaries

OKLAHOMA CITY – Oklahoma Democrats, in convention assembled, on Saturday (July 25) comfortably approved a proposal to allow registered Independents to vote in primary elections.

Chairman Mark Hammons, who took the reins as party leader at the May 30 “part one” of the convention, applauded the better-than-two-to-one (314-147) vote to make the change. In a statement sent to CapitolBeatOK, he said:

“Oklahoma Democrats from across Oklahoma came together for a historic vote to allow Independent voters access to Democratic primary ballots in Oklahoma. Democrats have opened their arms in allowing Independent voters access to have a voice in deciding candidates before they are chosen for them.”

Emeritus Prof. Tom Guild, twice the Democratic party standard-bearer for the Fifth Congressional District seat in central Oklahoma, pushed the reform idea for several months. In an exchange with CapitolBeatOK, he credited Susan McCann of Change Oklahoma for helping to lead the charge.

Guild, retired from the University of Central Oklahoma and now active in the Brennan Society (named for the late U.S. Supreme Court justice) said the pair “worked for four months to make this a reality. 

We called and e-mailed delegates, prepared information and placed it on the chairs of convention delegates.

“We spoke out in favor of including registered Independents in the Democratic primaries at county, district, and state conventions. We lobbied hard in person and via social media. We set the table and made it safe for elected officials and people running for or serving in party offices to join in the effort to make our party more inclusive and more diverse.”

Guild worked with others to prepare both a resolution and a change in party by-laws “to include registered Independents, more than a quarter million Oklahoma voters, in our nominating process. 

This is an important step in making the Democratic Party in Oklahoma once again competitive at the local and state levels and in congressional races. We ultimately did the right thing for the right reasons and I’m very proud of our party, and optimistic about its future in our state.”

Guild, who made the strongest showing of any Democrat in the congressional district in his 2012 race, has said in past interviews he had experienced resonance with the district’s conservative voters on some issues, while holding to his progressive/liberal political stances. The idea of expanding his party’s appeal to independents flowed from his campaign experiences, Guild explained.

In addition to Chairman Hammons, Guild credited party vice-chair Connie Johnson, a former state Senator, along with activists David Glover and Melody Ball in pressing for the change. He hailed former Governors David Walters, George Nigh and Brad Henry for their support as well.

In debate before the convention, state Reps. Emily Virgin of Norman and Scott Inman of Del City advocated the change, which was opposed by some speakers.

Charlene Belew of the Duncan Banner newspaper (July 25) reported Stephens County Chairman Roger Calger said the vote is a milestone for the party: “This further advances the Oklahoma Democratic Party being the party of the people.

“I am proud that we have opened our primaries to Independent voters and believe Oklahoma can do better at getting people to the polls. We have to counter the consistent assault on voters’ rights coming from the Republican Party.”

Activist Mark Faulk, a hard worker in the progressive held of the party, cheered the results in a Facebook post this weekend, writing, “[Saturday] was a great day for the Democratic party. Now we just have to stick to our ideals and principles.”

Bill Bleakley, a veteran journalist and observer of Oklahoma politics, said in advance of the proposed reform that it was a good idea.

In the Oklahoma Gazette (July 1, 2015) where he is publisher, Bleakley pointed to a SoonerPoll he commissioned in May 2010 that found most Oklahoma voters (two-third of Democrats and half of Republicans) wanted to permit such participation. 

Bleakley said he rarely heard opposition to the idea, adding, “What objections there were came from hyper-partisan officeholders or the political operatives who election them.”

Republican state Sen. David Holt of Oklahoma City has advocated several changes in state law that he believes might provoke more voter participation. In The Oklahoman, writer Silas Allen reported (July 26) Holt thinks Republicans should consider a similar change. Otherwise, he reflected, “We’re then the party denying a group of people that includes disproportionately large numbers of the Millenial Generation. If one party seems more welcoming than another, then the one that seems not as welcoming has to think about their next move.”

In contrast, state Republican party chairman Randy Brogdon thought Democrats were making a mistaken, Allen reported.

Sarah Baker, Democratic party spokesperson, says the change could be in place within a few weeks. 

Potentially 261,000 Independents will be eligible for party primaries in 2016.

Democrats held their May 30 and July 25 meetings at Oklahoma City Community College.