Oliver Bridges wasted little time registering to vote.
The 19-year-old Noble resident said he submitted his application a few months after his 18th birthday in October 2021, making him eligible to participate in every upcoming statewide and local election. Except for a primary where he was out of town, Bridges said he’s voted in three statewide elections the past 12 months.
“Some young people might find it difficult just due to scheduling, or they might have a terrible case of ADHD that doesn’t let them focus on one thing at a time,” said Bridges, who graduated high school last year and now attends classes at Moore Norman Technology Center. “But in all reality, I believe voting can be easy.”
State voting data shows Bridges is an outlier.
Less than 25% of registered voters age 30 and under cast a ballot last November, according to an Oklahoma Watch analysis of State Election Board data. Fewer than 10% of them voted on March 7 to decide State Question 820, an initiative seeking to legalize recreational marijuana and streamline the expungement of certain marijuana-related convictions. Voters soundly rejected the question, which appeared as a rare standalone item on the ballot.
Voter turnout across all demographics generally declines in non-presidential election cycles. But in the 2018 midterm contest, about 31% of voters 30 and younger cast a ballot, indicating a decline in interest over the four years.
The issue isn’t unique to Oklahoma. In neighboring Texas, 25% of voters ages 18-29 cast a ballot in the 2022 midterm election. Young voter turnout nationwide dipped slightly last year compared to 2018, a year that saw mostly strong participation nationwide, according to data compiled by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.
If the low turnout trend continues, the younger generation risks having less of a voice on policies that impact their day-to-day life, Rose State College political science professor Emily Stacey said.
“If you’re not participating from 18 to 30, then someone who is older and at a different point of life than you, and probably makes more money than you, is deciding what laws and policies you live by,” Stacey said. “That’s a really dangerous, commonsensical thing that I think a lot of the youth don’t understand.”
An Oklahoma Watch review found only seven of Oklahoma’s 149 state representatives and senators are 30 or younger. The average age of members of both bodies is just shy of 53. State senators must be at least 25, and House members at least 21, at the time of their election.
Lawmakers recently have zeroed in on policies affecting younger Oklahomans, including passing bills to ban nearly all abortions statewide and restrict access to gender-affirming care. A sweeping education reform package that proposes incremental teacher pay raises and tax credits for parents who homeschool or send their children to private schools is working its way through the Legislature.
“If the younger generation is not only not voting, but not showing up to these political parties and not going through the motions of the candidate selection process or becoming a candidate themselves, we’re going to see less future-forward policies,” Stacey said.
Many Oklahomans had no say in choosing their state representative last November, as 69% of state House and Senate races were decided during the April filing period or primary races. Former candidates who spoke with Oklahoma Watch last summer said financial and personal demands of campaigning, along with district boundaries that overwhelmingly favor one political party, can be deterrents for potential candidates.
William Weber of Del City, said he fears there’s become a “self-feeding cycle” of young people questioning whether their vote matters and opting not to participate. Weber, 26, said there should be more communication in future elections about the collective power of the young voting block.
“Your individual vote may not matter that much unless it’s one of those historic occasions where the margin is one vote,” Weber said. “But when too many people have that mindset, that does matter.”
What Other States are Doing
Young people face inherent challenges to becoming civically engaged, said Peter de Guzman, an assistant researcher with the CIRCLE at Tufts University. They tend to move more often, have less political experience and disproportionately face transportation issues getting to the polls.
People 30 and younger also tend to be a less reliable population of prospective voters for political organizations to reach, de Guzman said. Nearly half of respondents to a CIRCLE survey said they were not contacted by the Trump or Biden campaign during the 2020 election.
“If you’re a young person who’s never registered and not on a voter roll, you’re going to be harder to locate and more expensive to contact,” de Guzman said. “That often leads to what we see as kind of a neglect on the part of outreach to young people.”
Certain pre-registration and online registration policies have proven successful in other states, de Guzman said. For instance, CIRCLE researchers found that youth voter registration ahead of the 2020 presidential election was 10% higher in states with fully online voter registration.
Oklahoma lawmakers authorized online voter registration in 2015, but a series of technical delays have delayed the project. While prospective voters have been able to fill out an application online since 2018, they must print out the form, sign it and deliver it to their county election board office. In a statement to Oklahoma Watch earlier this year, State Election Board secretary Paul Ziriax said the fully online system is in the final stages of testing but did not offer an estimated date of completion.
A bill introduced earlier this year by Sen. Julia Kirt, D-Oklahoma City, sought to set an end-of-the-year deadline for the state to fully launch online voter registration. The measure lacked backing from the State Election Board’s backing and failed to receive a committee hearing.
More than one-third of Oklahomans age 18 to 30 are not registered to vote, according to a comparison of state voter registration data with 2020 U.S. census figures.
“We think of online voter registration as a leaky funnel, where people can drop off at points in the process because they encounter a barrier,” de Guzman said. “Making it as streamlined as they can will make things a lot smoother for the potential registrants.”
Cece Kuper, a 24-year-old voter who works for a technology company in Oklahoma City, said ideally the state would implement an automatic voter registration system. But making the current registration system entirely digital would be a positive development for youth civic engagement, she said.
“That’s where they lose us,” Kuper said of the requirement that online forms be printed and manually delivered. “This generation is very much online as a whole.”
Other policies CIRCLE has identified as helpful in encouraging youth civic participation, such as allowing people to preregister at 16 and allowing some teenagers under 18 to volunteer as poll workers, have not gained traction in Oklahoma. The state currently allows teenagers to preregister at 17 and a half.
Alex McEwen, a 24-year-old voter from Moore who voted for the first time in the 2020 presidential election, said those kinds of policies could spur more young people to become civically engaged. But the top priority for young people should be to remind their family members and friends of elections and encourage them to vote, she said.
“I see a lot of people in my age group and friend group talk about politics, but if you’re not actively using your right to vote, you’re not using your full voice,” she said.
More Time Off for Voting?
One student-led group civic engagement group at the University of Oklahoma is trying to make it easier for their college peers to cast a ballot.
Michael Stoyak, programming chair for OK Votes, said the group has worked to establish a polling place on campus and cancel classes on general election days. While efforts to make the 2020 presidential election day a student holiday proved successful on many campuses, fewer university administrators agreed to a similar arrangement for the 2022 midterm elections.
“One of the reasons I think students might not be getting out to vote is on Tuesday there are a lot of classes, and sometimes professors don’t always give exemptions for students, or students might feel as though their professor is not going to give them an exemption to go vote,” he said. “That has been an issue.”
State law requires employers to provide up to two hours of time off to vote on election day or during early voting, but there are several exceptions. Time off may not be granted if there’s a three-hour voting period before or after an employee’s shift, and the employer may alter a worker’s shift to accommodate voting. Oklahoma also offers no-excuse mail-in absentee voting for all state and local elections.
Bridges, the 19-year-old from Noble, said he juggles a full work and school schedule and can emphasize with someone feeling like they don’t have enough time to vote. But even more important than solving the time issue, Bridges said, is providing young people with the confidence and resources needed to make an informed voting decision.
“I think it’s more of a social issue. We hear things like teenagers are really stupid and they shouldn’t be given any responsibility, 18-year-olds shouldn’t vote, that sort of thing,” he said. “I hear that a lot from people in older generations and I think that puts a lot of negative emotion on voting for younger people, and makes you feel like whatever decision you make you could be fooling yourself.”
Weber, the 26-year-old from Del City, said he’s hopeful that young voter turnout will spike in the 2024 election cycle and the generation will soon have a greater say in Oklahoma politics.
“I think if more young people were stubborn about having their voices heard, we might actually be able to affect change in this state,” he said.