Electoral participation is a cornerstone of our representative democracy. The vote allows citizens to participate freely and fairly in the political process and ensures that elected officials stay accountable to their constituents.
Yet in Oklahoma we are seeing growing signs of the breakdown of electoral participation. For example:
- In this year’s midterm elections, less than 30 percent of eligible voters made it to the polls to cast a ballot for Governor and other offices. This was the lowest turnout in at least 50 years and perhaps in state history.
- In 65 of 101 seats for the state House of Representatives, the winner was decided without voters casting a ballot in the general election.
- In primary runoff elections this fall, average turnout was 18 percent, and for the two statewide Democratic runoff contests, barely one in ten registered party members cast a ballot.
- In the 2012 November Presidential election Oklahoma’s voter turnout was just 52.4 percent, third worst in the nation.
- Only 66 percent of voting-age citizens in Oklahoma are even registered to vote, the nation’s eighth lowest registration rate.
It hasn’t always been like this. As late as 2004, Oklahoma’s voter registration rate and turnout rate remained on a par with or just above the national average.
Many voices have lamented Oklahoma’s declining electoral participation, but often the only solution offered is to urge our friends, neighbors, and colleagues to be better citizens. But in reality, the electoral rules and practices established by Oklahoma’s state lawmakers and officials are part of the reason why electoral participation is so low. And there are many reforms Oklahoma could adopt that would help repair our broken democracy by boosting voter turnout and electoral competition.
A few of the reforms Oklahoma should consider include:
- Voter Information Pamphlets. In at least 16 states, state law require that election officials publish and distribute a voter information pamphlet. These pamphlets, which can include information on state questions, sample ballots, absentee ballot information, candidate information and more, help voters be more informed about the issues and candidates they are voting on.
- Online Voter Registration: At least 13 states allow voters to complete a voter registration application entirely online. Online registration saves money, increases the accuracy of voter lists, is easier for voters, and reduces the chances of Election Day mix-ups.
- Extend mail-in voting: Three states – Colorado, Oregon and Washington – now conduct all elections entirely by mail, while almost 20 others allow at least some all-mail elections. Mail-in elections are less expensive and administratively simpler to operate, and eliminate a host of problems associated with voters not being able to get to the polls or not knowing where to vote. Alternately, seven states currently allows voters to opt for ‘permanent absentee status,” which means that they will automatically be mailed an absentee ballot for each election.
- Ballot Access Reform: Oklahoma has the nation’s most restrictive ballot access laws, which gives voter fewer choices and discourages participation among those who don’t identify with the two major parties. Lowering the threshold for political parties and independent Presidential candidates to get on the ballot, as well as reducing the signature threshold for initiative petitions, would give Oklahoma a fuller range of choices.
- Open Primaries: In Oklahoma, all primary elections are restricted to registered party voters, which leaves the growing number of political independents with no voice in selecting which candidate will appear on the general election ballot. A majority of states operate some form of open primary system.
- Instant Run-off Primaries: Oklahoma’s current primary run-off system consistently has been shown to depress voter turnout. An alternative is the instant run-off, or preferential ballot, where voters rank candidates in order of preference and the votes of losing candidates are transferred up to second- and third-choices until one candidate gains a majority. The instant run-off allows voters to more fully express their electoral preferences and encourages candidates to engage a broader range of voters.
Together, these reforms, along with others that are discussed in our full election brief, have the potential to create a better informed and more highly engaged electorate and to reverse the state’s trends towards declining electoral participation
More important than the adoption of any particular reform identified here is simply that more policymakers and opinion leaders acknowledge the seriousness of declining political participation in Oklahoma and work to address the problem. Unless Oklahoma can find a way to reinvigorate our democracy and get more citizens engaged in the political process, we will have little chance of solving the great substantive challenges we face as a state.