Broken Democracy, Part II: What’s getting in the way of voting?

Photo by Vox Efx.
Photo by Vox Efx.

It may have been hard for Oklahomans and other Americans not to develop an acute case of election envy during the recent Scottish referendum on independence. Eighty-five percent of eligible Scottish voters cast a ballot; in some districts, turnout topped 90 percent. Meanwhile, in Oklahoma, less than half of registered voters went to the polls in 2012, and in this year’s November elections, fewer than 40 percent are likely to show up to decide who will represent us in statewide offices, Congress, and the state legislature. Oklahoma’s voter turnout is now among the very lowest in the nation.

As we discussed in this recent blog post, low voter turnout is one major indicator of the breakdown of democracy in Oklahoma, along with declining voter registration, the growing number of uncontested elections, and a demographically unrepresentative legislature.  Here we look at factors that may be hindering Oklahomans from participating fully in the electoral process.

Limited Ballot Access

Oklahoma has among the nation’s most restrictive ballot access laws, which gives voters fewer choices and discourages participation among those who aren’t supporters of the two major national parties.

In 2012, Oklahoma was the only state where voters could choose from only two candidates for President.”

 To get on the ballot in Oklahoma, a political party needs to: a) have earned at least 10 percent of the vote for the office at the top of the ticket in the last general election (i.e., president or governor), or b) submit a petition signed by a number of voters equal to 5 percent of the last vote cast for the office at the top of the ticket (more than 66,000 valid signatures in 2014).  Oklahoma is the only state in the nation in which an independent presidential candidate, or the presidential candidate of a new or previously unqualified party, needs support from more than 2 percent of the last vote cast to get on the ballot. In 2012, Oklahoma was the only state where voters could choose from only two candidates for President and the only state in which Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson was kept off the ballot.

Closed Primary System

In Oklahoma, all primary elections are restricted to registered party voters, which means that registered Independents, who now make up 12.5 percent of all Oklahoma voters, have no voice in selecting which candidates will appear on the general election ballot. Twenty states have adopted open primaries for selecting Presidential candidates, which allows voters to vote in the party primary of their choosing. Several states, including Louisiana, California and Washington, have done away with party primaries and allow all voters to select from a single list of candidates.

One interesting aspect to Oklahoma’s closed primary system is that political parties can choose to allow Independents to vote in their party primaries. As Kurt Hochenaur pointed out on the Okie Funk blog, between November 1 and 30 of every odd-numbered year, Oklahoma’s state party chairs can notify the election board that Independents will be allowed to vote in their party primaries for the next two years. If one party opts to allow Independents to vote, then the other party is given an extended deadline to decide whether to also allow Independents in their primaries.

Obstacles to Voting

A growing number of states have adopted measures that facilitate voter registration and voting. As of 2012, 13 states allow voters to complete a voter registration application entirely online, without requiring that a form be printed out, mailed, or scanned.  This is up from just two states that allowed online registration in 2008. Ten states plus the District of Columbia have now adopted same day voter registration, allowing any qualified resident of the state to go to the polls on Election Day, register that day by showing identification and proof of residency, and then vote.

Oklahoma has taken some steps to facilitate voting for those unable to make it to the poll on election day. The state allows  voters to request absentee ballots without requiring a reason, and offers early voting the Thursday, Friday and Saturday before an election.  However, more than half of states allow early voting at least a week before an election, with many allowing votes to be cast 30-45 days in advance or as soon as ballots are printed. The average early voting period among states that allow it is 33 days, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Meanwhile, Oregon, Washington, and, as of 2014, Colorado, have adopted all-by-mail elections, doing away entirely with the need to go to the polls.

In 2010, Oklahoma approved State Question 746, which added a voter identification requirement for in-person voting. Oklahoma’s voter identification law is less stringent than some states in that it allows for a voter registration card in lieu of picture ID and allows voters to cast provisional ballots based on a sworn statement. However, some voters who may be legally eligible to cast a vote may be dissuaded from going to the polls if they don’t possess or are not carrying a photo ID.

Finally, Oklahoma bars felons from voting for the full length of their sentence, even if they’ve been released on probation or parole. As of 2010, about 1.8 percent of Oklahomans (51,491 people), and 6.6 percent of African Americans (13,526 people) were unable to vote due to felon disenfranchisement. At least nine states allow some people with felony convictions to vote even prior to completing their sentence.

Limited Voter Information

Oklahoma has also not done well in providing voters with electoral information. In creating their Election Performance Index, the Pew Charitable Trusts looked at whether states made available five easy-to-access online tools. States got full marks if they allowed voters to find their registration status and polling place, review voter-specific ballot information, and track the status of absentee and provisional ballots. Oklahoma was one of only five states that had less than two of these tools. Meanwhile, some states send every voter an official voter information guide on candidates and measures that will appear on the ballot.

What Should be Done?

All told, a wide array of laws, practices, and customs are contributing to the decline of electoral participation and competition in Oklahoma.  What might it take to get more Oklahomans to re-engage in electoral politics? We would love to hear from you on this subject. Please share your ideas by submitting a comment on this page or sending an email to info@okpolicy.org with the subject “Broken democracy.” We will compile the most thoughtful, promising, and provocative ideas and share what we’ve heard, with the hope that some of the best suggestions will inform reform efforts in the coming legislative sessions.     

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

13 thoughts on “Broken Democracy, Part II: What’s getting in the way of voting?

  1. Much of the voter information that would be helpful to voters is published in the newspaper. Problem is far fewer people pick up or have the newspaper delivered any more. I don’t know how many people get most of their news online (I do) but aren’t deliberate about researching state questions or candidates. Intelligent voting is a must. There has to be other ways of getting info out that people will take the time to read (much less research).

    Earlier absentee voting should be a no brainer. Only thinking people would do it.

    For felons on parole, it would seem that if the system approved them to be released, they should be given the privilege and responsibility of voting.

  2. Are there other states that require absentee ballots to be notarized? I was telling an out-of-state friend about that, and they thought it was crazy. I grew up and began my voting career in California–we always got a packet of information and a sample ballot in the mail prior to an election. California always has a lot of propositions on the ballot, so working through that packet could be onerous, but it sure made figuring out the issues easier.

    1. Thanks for your input! We’re going to look into the question of whether other state require absentee ballots to be notarized

  3. The constant barrage of attack ads and the robocalls just wears me out. Most of the online media today was political and reporting which candidate is projected to win in November or run in 2016. I get emails daily from both parties for money. We have tried for years to get the money out of politics and it only appears to be a bigger problem now. Many voters have just tuned it out. People can only have so much drama or shark frenzy in their lives. Viable candidates would help. How many vote for the lesser of two evils? Voters are not offered the choice of “None of the above”. It would be interesting to see if a higher percentage voted when offered a true protest vote. People vote when they feel they can make a difference.

    1. Thanks for your input! The none-of-the-above option might be worth exploring (but what would they do once they’re in office?)

      1. No easy answers. My first thought was “they’ll come up with better candidates” if none of the above wins. I now am thinking there could be many different outcomes. I watched the debate last night, then I read the news snippets. The news snippets didn’t cover nuances I observed. How many watched football and will just read the snippets? I really don’t know how to motivate people to get better information.

  4. Those are all probably contributors but when I ask someone why they don’t vote they almost invariably answer either “my vote wouldn’t count because Oklahoma is an overwhelmingly Red state” or “all politicians are the same so it doesn’t matter.” I think the drive to legalize cannabis in Oklahoma is a turning point in Oklahoma politics because everyone has an interest one way or the other.

  5. The process for recall voting was eliminated in this state without any complaint from Oklahomans – as far as I know – during Falin’s administration. Bringing back the vote of no confidence and making it applicable to all branches of government would be a good step towards democracy.

  6. Something needs to be done about outright obstruction when it comes to voting and the entire petition proceedure. The petition process in Oklahoma is restrictive enough. Petitioners are having their right to petition on public property violated. Just today a lady was gathering signatures for Connie Johnsons petition, Recreational/Medicinal/Industrial marijuana at a location that many people have used in the past with no harassment, NW Expy and Meridian. On the corner is a parking lot that has maybe 50 parking spots, but it is mostly used by people who park to jog or bike and never has more than 5 cars at any time. That parking lot belongs to the lake property. Today the police made a petitioner leave because they had received a “memo” from someone on the Water Trust Board that said the City didn’t want to be seen taking sides on the issue. I would think that harassing a petitioner who is exercising their right to petition is taking sides. My question is, who do we sue?

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