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Problems plague top-two primaries. Here are the top-two reasons Oklahomans should avoid them.


Problems plague top-two primaries. Here are the top-two reasons Oklahomans should avoid them.

Mar 28, 2024 | 6:28 am ET
By Cindy Alexander
Problems plague top-two primaries. Here are the top-two reasons Oklahomans should avoid them.
(Photo by Janelle Stecklein/Oklahoma Voice)

There has recently been a great deal of attention to issues surrounding Oklahoma’s primary election process.

There is no disputing the fact that voters who have registered as “no party,” commonly identified as independent voters, are being shortchanged. Their tax dollars are paying for a primary election process in which their voice is limited. Currently, they may vote in Democratic primaries but not Republican primaries.

This inequity could be easily solved by allowing all voters to choose to vote in one primary election of any party. This is how primary elections are conducted in Texas.

A different approach is being suggested by a group planning to file an initiative petition to change how primary elections are conducted in Oklahoma.

Their approach, the use of a top-two primary, allows all voters to vote in a single primary in which all candidates running for the office are listed. The two candidates with the most votes proceed to the general election. This is how primary elections are conducted in California.

There are two big problems with top-two primaries — vote-splitting and general election barriers.

Vote-splitting occurs when candidates with similar platforms split the votes of like-minded people. When this occurs, the winner or winners of an election may have the support of only a minority of voters.

Consider what might have happened if the 2018 Oklahoma gubernatorial primary had been a top-two primary. There were 10 Republicans, 2 Democrats, and 3 Libertarians running. If the Republican and Libertarian candidates had split the votes of conservative voters, the two Democratic candidates could have moved forward to the general election. That would have resulted in either Drew Edmondson or Connie Johnson as governor, instead of Kevin Stitt.

The other problem with top-two primaries is, that in the absence of vote-splitting, the system creates a significant barrier to the general election ballot for minority party and alternate party candidates. Furthermore, those candidates advancing to the general election are chosen by a small number of politically active people.

Primary elections have low voter turnout.

A study published in 2017 in the journal Electoral Studies evaluated the reasons for that and identified the following: the belief that the stakes were lower, and the costs of voting were higher; less social pressure to turn out; and, exclusionary beliefs about who should participate. In other words, voters defer to those they think know and care more about the contests.

In a recent article published in the Oklahoma Voice, Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt said the following, referring to primary elections, “It forces the biggest decisions to be made in August in the runoff by the fewest number of people, and those people come from a very narrow perspective.”

Proponents of top-two primaries like to say that they increase voter turnout, but recent numbers tell a different story. In the California 2022 top-two gubernatorial primary, only 33% of registered voters bothered to vote, even though ballots are automatically mailed to all voters.

Compare that to the 2022 Oklahoma gubernatorial primary election.

Oklahoma does not automatically mail ballots to all voters. Independent voters could only vote in the Democratic primary, and Libertarians did not have a primary so could not vote at all.

There were 2.2 million registered voters on June 1, 2022. This number included about 395,100 voters registered as independents and about 18,800 registered Libertarians. The combined number of votes cast in the Democratic and Republican 2022 gubernatorial primaries was 527,678 for a voter turnout of just over 23%. 

The voter turnout in California does not seem that much higher in comparison, given the fact that so many registered voters in Oklahoma did not have a primary in which to vote. 

One might argue that it was the appearance of a ballot in the voter’s mailbox that made the difference.

Bringing open primaries, the kind in which all voters could vote in any one primary election, to Oklahoma would result in all the benefits espoused by the proponents of top-two primaries without the risk a general election ballot limited to candidates not supported by the majority of voters and chosen by a small number of politically active people with a narrow perspective.