Grim and Grimmer: Voter turnout hits all-time lows

Photo by Kenn Wilson / CC BY-NC 2.0
Photo by Kenn Wilson / CC BY-NC 2.0

Every two years, the U.S. Census Bureau issues a report on voter participation in the most recent elections based on a national survey conducted the previous November. The news from this year’s report ain’t pretty. Fewer Americans voted in the 2014  midterm elections than in any election in at least 45 years. In Oklahoma, barely one out of three adults (34.2 percent) went to the polls. Among voters age 45 and under in Oklahoma, less than one in five voted. All this makes the efforts to repair Oklahoma’s broken democracy, which gained some momentum and enjoyed some modest progress this past legislative session, all the more urgent.

Here are three major takeaways from the report:

Fewer Americans voted in 2014 than in any election in at least 45 years

Nationally, turnout in the 2014 midterm elections among voting-age citizens was 41.9 percent, down from 45.5 percent in the 2010 midterm elections. The previous lowest turnout since the Census Bureau started collecting survey data was 45.3 percent in 1998.

Voting in Oklahoma fell further behind

Just 34.2 percent of Oklahomans voted last November, according to the Census Bureau’s survey (note that the survey estimated 920,000 voters in Oklahoma, whereas data from the State Elections Board showed just 824,831 votes cast for Governor). Turnout dropped 6.2 percentage points from the 2010 midterm elections and was 12 points lower than in 2006, the last time an incumbent Governor ran for reelection. Turnout in Oklahoma was second lowest in the nation, ahead of just West Virginia (33.6 percent).  The gap between turnout in the Sooner State and the nation as a whole remains sizeable at 7.7 percentage points. This is slightly less than in the 2012 Presidential election (9.4 points) but larger than in 2010 (5.1 points).


[NOTE: Due to an error in U.S. Census data for voting by age category in 2012 and 2014, the discussion below about Oklahoma’s voting by age group does not have accurate numbers. We will update this post once the Census publishes the correct numbers.]

Voting rates for young voters fell furthest

Last November, less than one in eight Oklahomans ages 18-24 went to the polls, and barely one in five of those 25-44 voted. Turnout grew by age, with more than 40 percent of seniors casting ballots. Oklahoma’s turnout rate for the youngest age group was third lowest in the nation behind only Hawaii and Pennsylvania. Nationally, 17.1 percent of 18-24 year-olds and 27.6 percent of 25-44 year-olds voted.

Why people didn’t vote

The Census Bureau asked registered non-voters why they didn’t vote last November. A majority of non-voters nationally cited some kind of procedural obstacle: too busy or conflicting schedule (28.2 percent), illness or disability (10.8 percent), out of town (9.5 percent), inconvenient polling place (2.7 percent), transportation problems (2.1 percent), registration problems (2.4 percent), and bad weather conditions (0.4 percent). An additional 8.3 percent said they forgot to vote. It’s notable that states can implement numerous reforms, such as permanent absentee voting, all-mail elections, extended voter registration, and early voting, that minimize or eliminate all of these procedural obstacles. By comparison, only about one quarter of registered non-voters said they were not interested in the election (16.4 percent) or did not like the candidates or campaign issues (7.6 percent). The breakdown of reasons for not voting in 2014 was not substantially different from 2010.

[pullquote]”Only about one quarter of registered non-voters said they were not interested in the election or did not like the candidates or campaign issues.”[/pullquote]Oklahomans encounter all these voting obstacles, but other factors are also contribute to our plunging turnout. In particular, the increasingly uncompetitive nature of our electoral contests seems to play a prominent role. As we discussed in our election brief, voters last year had a choice of general election candidates in only 36 of 101 House seats, 12 of 25 Senate seats, and four of nine statewide offices. Of the seven U.S. House and Senate races, only one – for the 5th District – proved competitive; in all the others, the Republican was unopposed or won with more than two-thirds of the vote. With so few competitive or contested elections, an increasing number of Oklahoma voters seem to have decided to tune out from electoral politics together.

There are, however, grounds for optimism. The state’s dramatic drop in electoral participation has attracted growing attention in the past year. Over a dozen election reform bills were introduced during this past legislative session, and four measures – to provide online voter registration (SB 313), lower the threshold for new parties to get on the ballot (HB 2181), consolidate the dates for local elections (SB 312), and ease the notary requirements for absentee ballots (SB 173) – were passed into law. The state Democratic Party recently decided to allow independents to vote in their primaries, and conversations are continuing about additional proposals, including moving to a system of all-mail elections or doing away with party primaries altogether in favor of “top two primaries”, where candidates from every party appear on the same primary ballot and the top two vote-getters move on to the general election.

There will be no silver bullet to get more Oklahomans engaged in the electoral process, but with a sincere commitment to reforms, we can at least hope that the Census report after future elections won’t be quite as grim.

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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.

4 thoughts on “Grim and Grimmer: Voter turnout hits all-time lows

  1. Wallace Collins was a nice guy but he was the wrong person to head the Democrat Party in OK. No real recruitment of candidates or standing behind Dems. It was like the State Party didn’t exist. I switched parties after staying GOP to vote against Barresi, and never heard anything about welcome to the party locally — did nationally. Yet when we moved to OK and registered as GOP got all kinds of info on GOP candidates, where meetings were at, etc. You cannot ignore new registered voters to your party. Talked to several non-voters at my daughter’s wedding in Cancun and they said they never heard from the Democrat Party but after Fallin was reelected and we went through this last legislature, they will always vote — they are mad at themselves for not voting.

    Hopelully new blood at OK Dems will recruit more people to run who have common sense as the GOP has lost all common sense putting social issues over everything. With cuts to agencies, education and everything else while keeping the tax cut in place shows a great lack of judgement on the part of elected Republicans in the Legislature. To realize so few Republicans were even challenged is even more disgusting. What happened to the Democrat Party — they acted like they rolled over and played dead since Fallin took over instead of fighting for Oklahomans! There is no excuse from Democrat party officials for being so milk toast — fight to win elections or get out of politics. This state has been shortchanged with one party rule run by ALEC and the Koch Bros as we inch nearer to becoming like KS.

    Time for Democrats to stand up and be counted — someone needs to represent the people not the wealthy donors!

  2. People don’t vote because they know the election system has become rigged to service the wealthy and corporate interests. Polls show that the overwhelming majority of citizens believe that it serves those interests.
    Why look at those citizens who are registered, but did not vote. What about the MAJORITY of US citizens who don’t even bother to register.
    They believe, rightly or wrongly, that their voice and vote don’t count. So why would they vote.
    I’m all in favor of making registering and voting easier, but it won’t change voting behavior until there’s a significant change in the election system, especially campaign finance reform that will remove the undue influence of money.

  3. Wallace Collins wasn’t perfect, but he did a lot of good we should not forget or negate. When he stepped into the role of chair the party in serious arrears with the IRS — which no one knew about until an agent dropped by during Collins first week on the job. During his tenure, that debt was eliminated. The headquarters, which was a glorified frat room during the previous administration, was turned into a professional looking office. Wallace took on a huge mess, and got things to a place where the next chair could move things forward.

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