This column will appear more than a week after Super Tuesday, when Oklahomans voted for president in a closed primary. I am glad my preferred candidate (John McCain) won, if for no other reason than because my position cannot be cited as sour grapes: It would be a wise decision for Oklahoma Republicans to make 2008 the last closed primary in our state. A new system could encourage the selection of more viable candidates and promote social unity over the long term.
When I voted Feb. 5, the Republican table was set across from the Democrat table, and an impassable chasm was set between them. An independent seeking to vote for president would have been turned away in shame, only able to vote for school board in certain parts of the city. On the one hand, it seems manifestly unjust that such a large segment of our society is barred from any say in determining the finalists for the leadership of the free world. On the other, the freedom of association of the two major (and various lesser) parties is worthy of respect. Further, in a completely open system, members of one party, where the outcome is not in doubt (Dems in ’96, the GOP in ’04), could improperly manipulate elections across party lines.
Legislatively speaking, the solution is a “modified closed primary” where each party can decide for itself whether to allow voters who are not registered with any party to vote in its respective primary. Regardless of what the Democrats do, the GOP should open the big tent of the first round of voting to independents. I am quite at a loss when people of either party discount a primary victory because it was open to others. If one wants to win a general election, why not obtain the necessary practice of winning voters, both of one’s own party and otherwise?
The bases of each party will cry “principle!” and demand circling the wagons. Let us remember, though, that when our Founding Fathers laid the groundwork for the two-party system, homogenous political parties became untenable. To be of any stature, a party must be a coalition; to be a majority, the coalition must be broad. Growing the coalition requires putting a stop to navel-gazing and an emphasis on reaching out.
It is just common sense: Two voters’ ” or candidates’ ” views on such varied issues as the environment, foreign affairs, health care, education, energy, abortion and crime are bound to differ at times and coincide at others. Therefore, attempting to enforce rigid party orthodoxy is as futile as it is stultifying.
In our age of division, it is all the more imperative to emphasize what unites us as Americans and Oklahomans. The inclusion of independents at all stages of voting would help avoid the ossification of two competing camps. Therefore, a more open system is appropriate not only for Oklahoma’s delegates to the national conventions, but also for elections for state-level offices.
Primary elections themselves are distinctly American. Other Western countries hand over even more power to the institutional parties than even the most insular caucus in the United States. Development of our primary system in the direction I have outlined would fulfill the promise of the progressive era a century ago: We Americans vote for statesmen and representatives, not machines.
Reese is an attorney who lives with his wife and son in Oklahoma City.