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David Blatt: Oklahoma is dead last in voting participation, and that's not good enough

David Blatt: Oklahoma is dead last in voting participation, and that's not good enough

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The general election brought mixed news about the state of democracy in Oklahoma.

The good news is that the election went off without a hitch. Despite a huge surge in absentee ballots, hardworking election board workers in all 77 counties were able to release the results of all ballots on election night. Final official results were certified one week later.

And Oklahomans turned out in higher numbers. Just over 1.56 million people cast a presidential ballot, up almost 7.5% from 2016. Over two-thirds of registered voters — 68.7% — voted this November, compared to 67.3% four years ago.

The bad news is that electoral turnout in Oklahoma falls well below that of most other states. In fact, the highly respected United States Election Project reports that Oklahoma ranked dead last this year in voter turnout as a share of the total voting-eligible population, a measure that accounts for citizens who are not registered to vote. Just 55% of Oklahoma’s 2.85 million voting-eligible citizens cast a ballot in 2020, compared to the national average of 66.4%. This year is not an anomaly — for nearly three decades, voter turnout in Oklahoma has trailed far below the national average.

Low voter turnout should be a concern to all of us, whether Republican, Democrat or independent. Electoral participation is a basic cornerstone of our representative democracy. The vote allows citizens to participate freely and equally in the political process and ensures that our elected representatives stay accountable to their constituents. When citizens don’t vote, their opinions and interests may go unrepresented. The vote is especially critical for disadvantaged groups, such as low-income citizens, racial minorities and those with disabilities, who have little capacity to hire lobbyists, donate to campaigns or have other ways to exercise political influence. Yet, with some exceptions, these groups tend to participate in elections at the lowest rate.

Why is electoral participation so low in Oklahoma? In part it’s because our elections tend to be noncompetitive. With one dominant party, national parties don’t invest significant resources in voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts here, and there are few competitive legislative races to energize voters. In fact, a majority of state legislative races this year did not even draw candidates from the two major parties.

But just as important, it’s harder to vote in Oklahoma than it should be. We lag far behind many states in adopting electoral reforms that would remove voting obstacles and encourage voter participation.

There are many commonsense reforms that the Oklahoma Legislature should consider that would bring our election laws into line with many other states and make voting easier. Several years ago, the Legislature approved online voter registration, but the Election Board has thus far failed to implement it. Meanwhile, 21 states have adopted same-day voter registration, which allows any qualified resident of the state to go to register to vote and cast a ballot all in that day, and 20 states have adopted some form of automatic voter registration, usually when individuals renew their driver’s licenses. Oklahoma should follow suit.

Even if this year’s elections unfolded in exceptional circumstances, the trend away from same-day in-person voting is likely to outlast the pandemic. There are several steps Oklahoma can take to make nontraditional voting easier without compromising election security. These include extending the early voting period beyond the current three days and adding more in-person voting locations; adding secure locations for voters to drop off absentee ballots; eliminating the notary requirement for absentee ballots, and providing voters the option of being permanent absentee voters. Moving to all-mail elections, as is now done in five states, is also worth considering as a longer-term change.

Oklahomans can be proud that we operate free, fair and efficient elections. But as long as far too few of us actually get out and vote, there is important work left to do.

David Blatt is a professor of public policy in the MPA Program at the University of Oklahoma—Tulsa.

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