Oklahoma, one of 10 states that doesn’t offer online voter registration, has seen a sharp decline in new voter sign-ups this year as COVID-19 has created new challenges for in-person get-out-the-vote efforts.
State Election Board numbers requested by Oklahoma Watch show new voter registrations this year through the end of July are down nearly 22%, or a drop of 30,000 voters, compared to this point in the lead up to the 2016 presidential election.
What started out as a normal year quickly changed when coronavirus fears began to spread in late February and early March.
As social-distancing restrictions and lockdowns were ordered, new voter registrations plummeted throughout the spring. Just over 37,000 new voter registrations were recorded through March, April and May. That’s a 43% decline compared to the 65,500-plus who registered during the three-month period in 2016.
The wave of civil rights protests and social justice campaigns that emerged following the death of George Floyd on Memorial Day helped spark an uptick in registrations over the summer, including a 33% increase in registrations in July.
But voting advocates say the persistent spread of the virus throughout the state will make it difficult to sign up new voters at a steady clip before the Oct. 9 deadline. And they say the state’s election laws and procedures, including the absence of a long-delayed online voter registration website, will contribute to the challenges.
“We are looking at doing things differently, but It has been a struggle,” said Jan Largent, president of the League of Women Voters of Oklahoma, a group that regularly leads nonpartisan voting registration drives.
Largent said COVID-19 has disrupted much of the in-person work the group typically does in the months leading up to an election. Voting drives have been delayed, cancelled or operated with fewer crowds than usual.
But she said the group is working to adapt. They have launched or have planned outdoor voter registration drives where masks are required and social-distancing guidelines are followed.
“We are doing things like giving away the pens they use so there’s no problems with that,” Largent said. “We even have been looking at doing drive-thru drives.”
The Election Board doesn’t break out its new voter registrations numbers by political party.
But looking at overall voter registration numbers, which includes party switches and other changes, Oklahoma added a net of 69,266 voters – a 3.2% increase between Jan. 1 and the end of July.
During that time, Republicans grew their number of registered voters by 4.6% while Democrats grew by 0.7%. Independents grew by 4.1% and Libertarians grew by 9%
As of July 31, registered Republicans made up almost 49% of the state’s nearly 2.2 million registered voters. About 36% of the registered voters are Democrats while independents made up 16% of the total. Even with this year’s boost, less than 1% of the total is from registered Libertarians.
Oklahoma is not alone in experiencing troubles signing up new voters amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
TargetSmart, a Democratic political data firm, released a report earlier this month that found that there were more than 1.5 million fewer new voter registrations, a 32% drop, across the country in March and April compared to those two months in 2016.
But 40 states offer an option current still not available in Oklahoma: Online voter registration.
The state launched an online tool two years ago that allows registered voters to update their information. But development of a similar platform to register new voters online has been delayed repeatedly since the 2015 authorizing legislation was passed.
In September 2018, election officials said they were hopeful the system would be ready for the 2020 elections. But the state announced this year that would not be the case.
Misha Mohr, a spokeswoman for the State Election Board, said in response to COVID-19, the state sped up its launch of a voter registration “wizard” this spring that lets voters to fill out their application online, then print, sign, and mail the application to their county election board.
But she said development on a full online voter registration site remains on hold since it needs to interface with new computer systems the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety is rolling out related to its long-running efforts to comply with the federal REAL ID Act.
Because the state lacked online voter registration, Tulsa resident Mark Whitmire founded a nonprofit along with his wife, Mona, last year to make registering easier.
OKVOTE offers a website that allows residents to fill out the application online, which is then mailed to the registrant along with a postage-paid pre-addressed envelope that they can mail or drop it off at their county election board.
Although Whitmire said the launch of the state’s full online voter registration efforts could help, he said he would like to see further action from the lawmakers.
This includes joining the 21 states that offer same-day registration and the 19 states that have added automatic or opt-out registration.
“This shouldn’t be a partisan thing and it’s something we should be better at,” Whitmire said. “I don’t understand the argument against making voter registrations easier in a democracy. What is wrong with that?”