Proposals to curb party-switching ahead of primary elections and boost pay and legal protections for precinct officials are moving forward this legislative session.
Bills making it more difficult for voter-led groups to get an initiative question on the ballot and allow Oklahoma to separate state and federal elections have stalled and will likely remain dormant until next year.
Prompted in part by false allegations of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election, election security has been a hot-button issue at the State Capitol in recent years. Though post-election audits and a review from the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency affirmed fraud within Oklahoma’s election system is extremely rare, some Republican lawmakers have continued to push bills adding additional requirements on voters and election officials.
The most restrictive proposals, including bills to eliminate no-excuse absentee voting and forbid the state election board from joining voter list maintenance organizations, did not receive committee hearings. Other bills of concern to voting rights activists cleared the House or Senate but failed to advance past committee in the opposing chamber by an April 13 deadline.
Election bills passed this year will likely impact the 2024 presidential election cycle, which kicks off next March with the presidential preference primary. Bills without an emergency clause typically take effect on Nov. 1 of the year they are signed into law.
Here are some questions and answers about where election bills stand and how Oklahomans’ voting rights could be impacted:
What Election and Voting Issues Are Lawmakers Prioritizing?
Most of the remaining bills, which have cleared the House or Senate and committees in both chambers, are aimed at maintaining accurate voter rolls or preventing fraudulent activity.
Among them is House Bill 1950, which would require the State Election Board to compare death records from the Social Security Administration against state voter rolls, and House Bill 2682, which elaborates on a law passed last year forbidding the private funding of elections.
Also moving forward is House Bill 2056, which would require voters who cancel their registration to wait at least 60 days before re-registering within the same county. State election officials say the change prevents voters from switching parties during the summer primary election cycle. In recent election cycles, the Democratic Party has allowed unaffiliated voters to participate in their primaries while the Republican and Libertarian officials have closed their races to non-members.
While state law bars voters from changing their party affiliation from April 1 through August 31 in even-numbered years, some have canceled their registration and re-registered with a different party soon after as a workaround, said Rusty Clark, assistant election board secretary.
“It’s a significant number depending on the race,” said Clark, who was unable to provide specific data on recent party switches. “There are people who understand that’s a loophole.”
Voters may also notice a slight change to next year’s primary election date. Senate Bill 375 by Sen. Brent Howard, R-Altus and Rep. Carl Newton, R-Cherokee, would push the June primary election date from the fourth to the third Tuesday in June. State election officials say the change is needed to allow sufficient time to send August runoff ballots to military personnel stationed overseas.
How are Lawmakers Addressing Poll Worker Shortages?
Responding to reported precinct official shortages and incidents of harassment, most notably in Tulsa County, lawmakers have pushed forward bills to incentivize volunteering as a precinct official.
Senate Bill 481 by Dave Rader, R-Tulsa, would classify harassment of an election official as a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in the county jail and a $1,000 fine.
Senate Bill 290 by Warren McCurtain, doubles the daily compensation for judges and clerks to $200. Inspectors, who act as the lead precinct official and currently receive $110, receive $225 daily under the proposal.
Mike Sulyzcki, an Oklahoma City resident who has volunteered as a poll worker for the past 20 years, believes a pay bump would be a good starting point to generate more interest in becoming a precinct official. The position requires a minimum 12-hour shift, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., with preparation time often necessary before and after.
Mike Sulyzcki, 77, said lawmakers also may need to consider authorizing split shifts or incentivizing businesses to offer paid time off to their employees on election days.
“Somebody has to figure out a way for people who are working to take a full 14-hour day out of their lives and make it worth their while,” he said. “The civic duty part of it and current reimbursement only goes so far.”
What Notable Bills Have Stalled?
Several measures that cleared the House or Senate failed to advance past committee in the opposing body, including:
- House Bill 1415 by Denise Crosswhite Hader, R-Piedmont. Establishes a process for Oklahoma to separate state and federal elections if certain federal reforms pass.
- House Bill 1629 by Regina Goodwin, D-Oklahoma City. Clarifies when a person convicted of a felony has their voting rights restored.
- Senate Bill 518 by Julie Daniels, R-Bartlesville. Places some restrictions on groups seeking to place an initiative question on the ballot.
- House Bill 2024 by Max Wolfley, R-Oklahoma City: Requires notary publics who notarize more than 20 absentee ballots to submit a detailed log to their county election board.
Unless revived by legislative leadership, lawmakers will have to wait until next year to reintroduce these measures.
Lynn Thompson, communications and development director for the Oklahoma Academy, a nonprofit and nonpartisan group that studies public policy, said the organization heard from several people concerned that Senate Bill 518 would strip power from voters. Daniels has defended the proposed changes, including requiring petition filers to pay a $750 fee and increasing the number of data points required to verify a signature, saying that they’re necessary to boost public confidence in the process.
Thompson said it’s encouraging that Daniels’ bill and other measures aimed at adding new requirements to the initiative petition process have failed to gain traction.
“Anytime you try to limit the voice of the people, that’s problematic,” Thompson said.
Do Any of the Remaining Bills Propose Expanding Voting Access?
One proposal, Senate Bill 1040 by Darcy Jech, R-Kingfisher, would authorize the state to offer electronic voter registration services to U.S. citizens who are seeking a driver’s license.
Otherwise, measures to expand voting access died early in the legislative session.
These include bills authored by Democrats seeking to expand early voting hours on the Saturday preceding a general election, allow the curing of rejected mail-in ballots and establish an automatic voter registration system, none of which received a committee hearing.
Margaret Kobos, the founder of Oklahoma United for Progress, a nonpartisan organization that aims to increase voter participation, said none of the measures still alive seem particularly harmful or threatening to voters. But lawmakers have missed an opportunity to make voting easier ahead of the next major election cycle, she said.
Statewide voter participation in the November 2022 midterm election declined about 6% compared to 2018, with just over 50% of eligible voters casting a ballot.
“The big problem is the [low] turnout and the disconnection that people are feeling,” Kobos said. “We need to solve that, making voting easier and more accessible for people who work all day.”
How Long Do Lawmakers Have to Consider the Remaining Bills?
Thursday, April 29 is the cut-off date for bills to be considered by the full opposing chamber. After this date, final details of bills that have passed out of the House and Senate may continue to be fleshed out in conference committees.
By statute, lawmakers must wrap up business by 5 p.m. May 26.
Keaton Ross is a Report for America corps member who covers democracy for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at (405) 831-9753 or Kross@Oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter at @_KeatonRoss.