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.
“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.”
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.