For Some, a Glimmer of Good News from Oklahoma’s Low Voter Turnout (The Oklahoman)

By The Oklahoman Editorial Board

LOW turnout in the Nov. 4 Oklahoma elections led to laments about voter apathy. For some political operatives, however, the anemic participation rate offered a glimmer of good news.

Only about 41 percent of registered voters turned out in Oklahoma, which is less than normal for a nonpresidential election in which an incumbent governor is on the ballot. The 2014 turnout produced the fewest votes cast in a gubernatorial election since 1978.

Votes cast for governor are linked to requirements for getting initiative petitions and third-party presidential nominees on the Oklahoma ballot. The lower the turnout, the lower the burden for future ballot access.

We termed this a “glimmer” of good news because it’s only that — a slight opening in the brick wall that prevents most initiative petitions and alternative candidacies from reaching the ballot. Imagine the increase in turnout had referenda involving school storm shelters and marijuana law liberalization made the 2014 ballot.

Instead, Oklahoma’s overly burdensome ballot access requirements helped limit the referenda list to three noncontroversial state questions that had been advanced by the Legislature rather than petition organizers.

E. Zachary Knight, of Oklahomans for Ballot Access Reform, says the low turnout means the signature burden for initiative petitions will be the lowest it’s been in many years; about 20 percent fewer signatures will be needed in 2016.

However, we’re not convinced that lifting ballot access restrictions would have changed much about the 2014 turnout. Nonpresidential elections in which voters are unhappy with incumbents see an increase in turnout. This year, voters apparently were not in an anti-incumbent mood here. In four years, most incumbent state officials won’t be on the ballot because they’re term-limited. Spirited races for open seats could drive up turnout.

What else could help boost turnout?

David Blatt of the Oklahoma Policy Institute offers a number of suggestions, some of which bear serious consideration and others not a moment’s thought. The latter category would include letting convicted felons vote before they’ve reached the full length of their sentence, even if they’re on probation or parole.

Opening the closed primary system would increase turnout in primary and runoff elections but have no effect on general elections. We oppose fully open primaries, but the political parties could choose to allow independent voters (a fast-growing segment in Oklahoma) to participate. So far, the parties have chosen not to. This needs to change.

Liberals argue that voter ID requirements reduce turnout. We find this argument to be specious. Oklahoma has a generous system for early and absentee voting; its ID requirements are among the least restrictive in the nation.

Same-day voter registration is another idea that might increase turnout, but we don’t think it’s overly burdensome for citizens to register a few weeks in advance of an election.

What is burdensome in Oklahoma is ballot access. Not only do initiative petitions require too many signatures, but the circulation period is limited to 90 days. More time is needed.

Knight says that without access reform, 2016 will be the fourth consecutive presidential election in which no alternative party nominees will be on the Oklahoma ballot. Oklahoma is the only state in which a new or previously unqualified party needs support from more than 2 percent of votes cast in the previous general election.

If the threshold were 1 percent, the Libertarian Party’s next presidential nominee would make the 2016 ballot because a Libertarian candidate for governor this year got nearly 2 percent of the vote.

Of course, a Libertarian presence won’t change the reality of who will get Oklahoma’s Electoral College votes. But in might increase turnout by a tad.

Every little bit helps.

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