Libertarians ponder closing primary election ranks
Oklahoma Libertarians are facing a big choice as they settle into their first gubernatorial campaign season: Who gets to pick their candidate?
When the party officially formed last year, it told the state that any registered independent voter could cast a ballot in Libertarian Party primary elections. Now, however, the party’s leadership will decide whether to close ranks, only allowing the 4,000 or so registered Libertarians to cast a ballot.
An executive committee will meet next month to decide, but members and candidates spoke out recently at a forum covering the topic. There is a split among the party, even among its candidates for governor.
Candidate Rex Lawhorn, a small business management consultant from Tulsa, said he favors a so-called closed primary. He said independent voters have shunned political parties because they are angry or have no passion for their policies.
“We are giving them the opportunity to exercise their lack of passion for our message by not committing to our party,” Lawhorn said. “There is still zero interest on their part, there is still zero understanding of core Libertarian principles, and we have allowed an uneducated populace to determine the Libertarian message in our infancy.”
Libertarians are now having the same debate Democrats had two years ago, as the Oklahoma Democratic Party struggled with declining membership and political power. Party officials chose to open primaries, in part to attract Oklahoma’s burgeoning class of unaffiliated voters.
Joseph “Joe Exotic” Maldonado, another Libertarian candidate for governor, said by letting independents in the door, they might decide to register.
“In order to grow this party, you’re going to have to invite some people in and educate them in the standards and beliefs of the Libertarian Party,” Maldonado said at the forum. “Fighting for one small, little group right now of 3,900 people, and just shutting the door on that idea, is not common sense for me at all.”
For established political parties, Rose State College political science professor James Davenport — not a candidate — thinks closed primaries are better.
“Everybody kind of knows what it means to be a Republican or a Democrat,” he said.
But for the Libertarian Party, which is relatively new in Oklahoma as an organized institution, not many voters are familiar with the platform.
“Right now, they just need greater exposure to a larger group of voters,” Davenport said. “If every registered Libertarian voted in the governor’s election next year for the Libertarian candidate, that wouldn’t get them anywhere near the number of votes they need to stay on the ballot in future elections.”
To remain a recognized party in Oklahoma, Libertarians must get at least 2.5 percent of the votes for governor next year, and the same percentage during the next presidential election.
Lawhorn said it’s not about the party or the candidate, but about the message that Libertarians believe.
“And if you can’t get people to buy in to the message by making the simple commitment of showing your passion for the message by reregistering as a Libertarian in order to choose who delivers that message, then we might as well not even be a party because we have completely defeated our own purpose,” he said.
Chris Powell, the third Libertarian candidate for governor, acknowledged there are strong feelings on both sides of the issue. He has an opinion, but no longer advocates for it to avoid alienating the other side.
“I think we would be doing ourselves a service by allowing independents to vote in our primary in order to better pave the way for success in the general election,” he said.
Joseph “Joe Exotic” Maldonado