Registration Change ‘Like rush hour in Cleora’

Randy Krehbiel
Tulsa World

The stampede of registered Democrats to the Republican Party for this year’s GOP primary turned out to be more like rush hour in Cleora.

Originally, the thought was that many Democrats, presumably educators or parents, would switch parties to vote in the Republican state superintendent primary between Joy Hofmeister and incumbent Janet Barresi. (A third Republican candidate, Brian Kelly, will also be on the ballot.)

The rather-switch-than-fight theory gained traction after U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn announced his retirement in January, and it soon became clear his replacement would be all but chosen in the Republican primary.

But, from mid-January until April 1 —— the last day voters could change party affiliation before the June 24 primary and Aug. 26 runoff —— the Republican net gain among “switchers” was about 3,450.

That’s two-tenths of 1 percent of all registered voters, and four-tenths of 1 percent of all registered Republicans.

But, as small of a number as that is, it isn’t necessarily insignificant.

The 2008 Republican Corporation Commission primary was decided by 2,800 votes.

Todd Hiett defeated Scott Pruitt by 2,400 votes in the 2006 Republican lieutenant governor runoff.

That same year, Lloyd Fields beat Brenda Reneau by 2,200 in the Labor Commissioner general election.

University of Oklahoma political science professor Keith Gaddie said the effort —— known as “costs” to social scientists —— of changing party affiliation deters most people from doing it.

Some of those costs are tangible: the time and bother to find out how to change affiliations, to complete the paperwork, and to submit it, for instance.

Some is more perceived than real: how much time and bother someone thinks it will take to do all of those things.

Some is psychological.

“Switching parties changes your identity, how you think of yourself,” said Gaddie.

People find it hard to change, he said, unless they really mean it.

“Usually, it has something to do with dissatisfaction with your old party,” Gaddie said.

“People who switch parties usually have been voting the other way for a while, anyway.”

A little more than 3,600 voters switched from Democrat to Republican in time for the primary. Another 550 independents changed to Republican.

On the debit side, almost 700 Republicans reregistered as Democrats or independents.

How do those 3,450 net GOPers make a difference?

First, the U.S. Senate and state superintendent primaries are expected to be close. The Senate primary, featuring T.W. Shannon and James Lankford —— with Randy Brogdon as a spoiler and four other candidates on the ballot —— could easily wind up in a runoff, or close to a runoff.

Second, party-switchers tend to be motivated, and therefore more likely to vote.

Third, primary turnout is usually low.

It was unusually strong in the 2010 Republican primary, when about a third of those registered and eligible cast ballots.

A similar turnout this year would mean about 280,000 voters.

And the difference in an election decided by 1 percentage point would be about 2,800 votes.

And if the election goes to a runoff, the turnout is likely to be much lower —— and spottier.

In any event, Oklahoma’s next U.S. senator is likely to be chosen by well under 10 percent of the state’s 2 million registered voters.

More than half —— the 1.1 million Democrats and independents —— will not be eligible for the Republican primary.

If history is a guide, a third or less of Republicans who can vote in the primary will.

And that translates into victory at about 135,000 votes out of 2 million registered voters.

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