June 05–SINCE January, the number of Oklahomans registered to vote as independents has surged. Increased registration is an encouraging sign of greater civic engagement, but what the growth of independents signifies and whether it signals a change in voter attitudes remain to be seen.
According to the Oklahoma Election Board, 45,191 new voters have registered since Jan. 15. Nearly 31 percent of those registered as independents, slightly more than double the overall proportion of registered independents in Oklahoma. In contrast, the share of new voters identifying as Republicans or Democrats was below each party’s share of the overall electorate.
One possible explanation for the surge in independent voters is that many Oklahomans are dissatisfied with both parties in light of the dysfunction and governance seen in recent sessions of the Legislature.
Another factor may be the June 26 election on legalization of “medical” marijuana. Some theorize many people registering as independents are pro-marijuana but otherwise generally disinterested in politics.
Typically, registered independents are less motivated than other voters. In 2014, just 19 percent of independents voted in statewide races that included a gubernatorial contest. In comparison, nearly 48 percent of Republicans and 41 percent of Democrats turned out that year. In the 2016 presidential race, just under half of registered independents turned out, and in that year’s primaries just 4 percent of registered independents showed up.
Also, many people who register as independents do so simply because of the 1993 federal “motor voter” law, which requires states to provide voter registration opportunity whenever citizens renew driver’s licenses.
Prior to 1993, Oklahomans would typically fill out a registration card and hand it to a registrar (who was often affiliated with a major political party). Those leaving party affiliation blank were usually prompted to check a party preference. Under the “motor voter” law, those leaving party affiliation blank are designated as “independent” by default. This results in growing numbers of registered independents who seldom if ever show up at the polls.
Yet there’s reason to think this year’s elections could see higher turnout from independents. As noted, the marijuana question could fuel turnout in June’s primary, and Democrats have opened their primaries to registered independents. (Those wishing to vote in Republican primaries must be registered Republicans.)
The Democratic gubernatorial primary includes two candidates: former Attorney General Drew Edmondson and former state Sen. Connie Johnson. Edmondson is the better-known and better-funded of the two. But Johnson has long been an advocate for marijuana legalization. (Edmondson supports medical marijuana, but is less supportive of legalized recreational use.)
Should Johnson exceed expectations in the Democratic primary, that could signal the impact of the new registered independents, as in 2016 when independents were partially credited with helping Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont win Oklahoma’s Democratic presidential primary.
For the most part, independents have been largely inconsequential in Oklahoma elections. Before this month is over, we’ll know if that is starting to change.
This article provided by NewsEdge.