More than 60 legislative bills have been filed since 2015 that seek to expand or create new options for Oklahomans to vote or register to vote.
But an Oklahoma Watch review of the legislation considered during the past three sessions shows that most didn’t even get a committee hearing. All but 10 failed to reach the governor’s desk.
Among the survivors, the most potentially significant one – approved in 2015 to allow online voter registration – may not take effect for two to three more years, meaning most voters in the 2018 elections will likely encounter few changes that appreciably improve voter convenience or efficiency.
Proposals to change the voting process have often stemmed from Oklahoma having one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country. The 2015 online registration law was one of the state’s most ambitious attempts to boost voter turnout in years.
That effort, however, has stalled.
Little progress has been made toward getting the voter registration website up and running in the last two years. And state officials say it will be at least another two to three years before the online registration system can become a reality.
The delay is being blamed not on funding constraints, but on long-awaited upgrades to the Department of Public Safety’s drivers’ license computers, which must be able to verify submitted voter registration information from the state Election Board.
Some lawmakers and voting advocates say a lack of urgency has prevented Oklahoma from joining several other states that moved more aggressively to reduce barriers to voting.
“A lot of legislation gets filed every year, but it always seems to get pushed to the wayside,” said Julie Knutson, CEO and president of the Oklahoma Academy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that is focusing on voter engagement issues over the next year. “Some lawmakers might say it’s because they think there are bigger fish to fry, but I think others just like how the system already is.”
State Marked by Low Turnout
Despite a high-profile presidential race, seven contentious state questions and a host of congressional, legislative and local candidates on the ballot, more than two out of every five eligible Oklahoma voters decided to sit out November’s election.
U.S. Census Bureau data shows only five states had worse turnout numbers in the general election than Oklahoma (57 percent). The state ranked 42nd in the percentage (68 percent) of eligible voters who were registered to vote.
Oklahoma’s voter turnout numbers were even worse in the past.
Just 34.2 percent of the state’s eligible voter population voted in the 2014 midterm elections, which also featured the governor’s race and other statewide contests. Although turnout for these is generally lower than during presidential election years, Oklahoma’s turnout number was the 49th lowest in the nation that year.
In 2012, Oklahoma’s electorate was among the least active, with 52 percent of eligible voters casting ballots and 66 percent of eligible voters registered.
The poor turnout prompted Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, to suggest in 2015 that civil participation in Oklahoma was heading toward “crisis levels.”
In response, he spearheaded much of the effort to make voting easier.
Many of his proposals, such as expanding early voting, allowing same-day registration on Election Day and exploring vote-by-mail elections, have failed to gain much traction in the Legislature.
But a few measures have survived. Those include three bills passed this year that would:
>Allow registered voters to change the address on their registration form online.
>Automatically apply a registered voter’s change of address for an Oklahoma driver’s license or other ID to their voter registration if the voter is moving within the same county.
>Allow additional smaller counties accept absentee ballots at multiple locations.
Bryan Dean, spokesman for the State Election Board, said his agency worked with Holt and other lawmakers to pass the measure allowing registered voters to change their address online as a stopgap before the full online registration program is in place.
He said that should be active by late this year with minimal cost to the state.
Slow Pace of Change
Among the 10 voting-related bills approved over the past two years, the one likely to have the biggest impact will allow online registration for first-time voters and those who need to re-register.
With more than 34 states now offering online voter registration, the Census Bureau reported that 6.3 percent of all voters registered online for the 2016 election. The option was especially popular among young voters, with 12.2 percent of 18 to 24 year olds registering online and 10.3 percent of 25 to 44 year olds registering online.
Oklahoma has struggled to attract younger people to the polls. In 2016, 47.6 percent of eligible 18 to 24 year olds were registered and about one in three eligible residents in this age group actually voted.
The turnout for young Oklahomans was also far below the national average last year, when 50.8 percent of all 18 to 24 year olds were registered and 43 percent voted.
A 2015 Pew Research Center study found that many of the states with online voter registration reported increased voter satisfaction and also saved money.
The California Secretary of State’s office estimates that in 2014 the state saved $2.34 per online registration, or a total of $2 million, because of reduced paper processing.
Holt, who sponsored the 2015 bill to allow online voter registration in Oklahoma, said he is disappointed that the system won’t be ready for 2018 and is questionable for the 2020 contests.
“I knew it would at least take a few years to get it going, but I didn’t expect it would take this long,” Holt said.
The problem is that the electronically submitted voter registration forms will need to be cross-checked with applicants’ driver’s licenses or ID cards that are stored with the Department of Public Safety.
The agency, however, needs to overhaul its computer system for the process to work. Those upgrades, which are also needed to comply with the REAL ID Act, have been on hold because the Legislature has blocked DPS from implementing the federally mandated license requirements.
But the passage of House Bill 1845 this year gives the agency the go-ahead to begin the upgrades and start charging a new $5 license fee to pay for the project, which has a budget of up to $20 million.
Jeff Hankins, DPS’ director of driver license services, said he plans to award a contract for a company to do the work by this summer.
He said vendors that have placed bids estimate it will take 24 to 30 months to complete the project. Afterward, the Election Board will need an unspecified length of time to set up the public side of the online voter registration website.
“If they passed REAL ID a couple years earlier, we would be well on way to having a system built,” he said.
Additional Changes Face Headwinds
Several other states that already offer online voter registration are weighing further changes.
Nine states and the District of Columbia have passed laws since 2015 to automatically register residents to vote instead of requiring prospective voters to do so on their own.
A recently released study by the left-leaning Center for American Progress of Oregon – the state was the first to implement the change – showed 116,000 people registered who were unlikely to have done so otherwise.
Three Democrat-authored bills that would set up a process for automatic voter registration in Oklahoma were filed before this year’s session. None were heard in committee.
Oklahoma would first need online voter registration before it could implement automatic registration. But given the current delays, Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa, who authored one of the three bills, said It would be smart to start planning for automatic registration now.
Nichols argued that voting is a right and not just a privilege, and the state should do everything it can to open up voting to as many residents as possible.
“Voting isn’t the most convenient thing for everybody, but it probably should be, especially registering,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many people get to an election they are excited about and they realize they are not registered in time.”
Holt said while he generally favors making it easier to vote or register, a wait-and-see-approach might make more sense.
“We don’t really have a strong track record of being a pioneer on these type of issues,” he said. “And since only a few states have adopted it, it might be more realistic to just focus on the online registration.”
The proposal has run into trouble in other states led by Republican governors or legislators.
In 2015, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie argued voters already had ample options to register to vote when he vetoed an automatic voter registration bill.
“I reject this government-knows-best, backwards approach that would inconvenience citizens and waste government resources for no justifiable reason,” he said.
Holt, a Republican who is running for Oklahoma City mayor, said he thinks his party could be more open to changing how residents elect their leaders and representatives. He cited some of his other proposals, including moving to an open primary system, as ways to motivate more residents to vote.
But he said resistance could come from whoever is in power because the current system got them elected in the first place.
“I don’t disagree it’s often Democrats pushing the changes,” he said, “but it really should be both parties.”