In Search of Ways to Attract More Oklahoma Voters to the Polls

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A little more than 40 percent of registered voters, or about 29 percent of Oklahoma’s voting-age population, cast ballots in the 2014 general election.

That ranked Oklahoma among the lowest in the nation in voter turnout for the year. It also was one of the state’s poorest showings since Oklahoma began tracking voter registration in 1960.

But the turnout wasn’t an outlier. Over the past decade, voter participation has been declining in both presidential-year and mid-term elections.

The trend has some Oklahoma lawmakers taking a different tack than other conservative states that enacted laws to make it more difficult to vote.

More than 20 bills have been proposed over the past few years that, in one way or another, seek to make it easier to vote or register to vote. Few of the bills have passed, however, especially the more sweeping changes.

“I think some of the things we’ve done have been good,” said Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City. “But I can’t say that we’ve done anything I would call a game changer.“

Holt was the lead sponsor of a set of bills in 2015 and 2016 seeking to change the state’s voting laws.

One of the proposals approved in 2015 consolidates the number of elections held each year. Holt said this should help prevent “voter fatigue” by no longer having separate elections for city council, school board and the like.

Another new law will allow voters to register online instead of having to mail in an application or fill out the form in person. That measure also passed in 2015, but won’t take effect until next year.

Among the proposals that didn’t advance in the Legislature:
– Allow voters who missed the registration deadline to register and vote in person during the early-voting period.
– Give voters the option to be permanently placed on the absentee voter list instead of having to apply each year.
– Expand the days and hours when early voting is available.
– Establish a system in which voters could receive ballots by mail and return them by mail or in person; the change was to take effect by 2020.

Holt said the mail-voting proposal might have the biggest chance of boosting voter participation. Only a handful of other states, including Washington, Colorado and Oregon, use this method, and he said it has been successful.

Meanwhile, some voter-rights advocates say Oklahoma should overturn one of its laws to get more people to the polls.

Tulsa attorney James Thomas has been working on a court challenge for four years to overturn Oklahoma’s voter ID law, put in place through a state question in 2010. The law requires voters to present at the polls identification issued by the U.S. government, Oklahoma state government or an Oklahoma tribal government.

A district court judge upheld the constitutionality of the law this month, but Thomas said he will seek an appeal.

Thomas said the law violates the Oklahoma constitution because it erects an unnecessary barrier to voting. He said hundreds of thousands of voters – particularly minorities and elderly, young and low-income voters – lack a valid ID or may have trouble locating it on election day.

The state allows voters without an ID to vote by showing their free voter ID card or signing a sworn affidavit.

Regardless, “It shows that Oklahoma is not encouraging voters,” he said. “If you say you have to prove this or prove that, people will say it’s just not worth it.”

In a court filing, lawyers from the Attorney General’s Office argued the voter ID law hasn’t affected turnout. They said the decline in turnout is due to other factors, such as lack of hot-button state questions, popular candidates or high-profile races.

Oklahoma State University political science professor Rebekah Herrick agreed that the lack of meaningful, competitive races is a major reason for the low voter turnout in the state. In many congressional and legislative races, Republicans are basically assured a victory and may not even face a Democratic opponent, she said. The carving-out of safe districts for both parities through the redistricting process is a national issue.

Herrick said one of the biggest changes that might attract more voters is to offer same-day registration, which 13 other states have. Voters could register and vote at the same time on election day or during the early-voting period.

“People tend to get more interested about the election as it gets closer to the election,” she said. “And structurally, I don’t think it would be that difficult to do.”

Holt said he plans to introduce or reintroduce several voting reforms for the 2017 legislative session, but had not yet determined which legislation he would push.