OK PolicyCast Episode 10 Transcript

Listen to this episode here.

G: Hello, Oklahoma. This is the OK Policy Cast for October 3, 2014. I’m Gene Perry.

KJ: And I’m Kara Joy McKee. In today’s podcast, we’ll talk with David Blatt about what’s stopping Oklahomans from voting and participating in our democracy.

KJ: But first, some headlines.

G: U.S. District Judge Ronald White, a George W. Bush appointee, upheld Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s lawsuit that seeks to take away tax credits to purchase health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. The ruling will be appealed to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. Other federal courts have been split on the issue, and it may ultimately be decided by the US Supreme Court.

G: If Pruitt’s lawsuit is successful, about 55,000 Oklahomans will lose tax credits that have enabled them to purchase affordable health insurance. Both Attorney General Pruitt and Governor Mary Fallin cheered the judge’s ruling.

KJ: New voter registration numbers show Republican registration has almost caught up with Democratic registration in Oklahoma. As of the end of September, Oklahoma had just over 2 million registered voters, including 882,778 Democrats, 877,678 Republicans, and 253,889 Independents. Democrats now outnumber Republicans by 5,100 voters, just 0.2 percent of the total number registered. That’s a big change from 2000 when the state was 56.7 percent Democratic and 35 percent Republican.

G: The US Supreme Court has says it will hear the case of a Tulsa Muslim teenager who was denied a job at Abercrombie & Fitch because they said her hijab violated the chain’s employee dress code.

Also this week, State Rep. John Bennett doubled down on his anti-Muslim comments on Thursday. Speaking to a tea party group in Muskogee, he said there was “no difference between moderate Islam and extreme Islam” and suggested that moderate Muslims groups were lying in the many times they have condemned violence by extremists.

KJ: A federal judge has thrown out a lawsuit filed by Oklahoma and five other states asking the court to strike down a California law that bans the sale of eggs to Californians when those eggs are produced by hens in cramped living conditions. The judge said the states lacked legal standing to sue because they failed to show that the California law does genuine harm to their citizenry instead of just possible future damage to some egg producers. California voters approved a 2008 ballot measure that required pigs, calves and egg-laying hens to be raised with enough space to allow them to lie down, stand up, turn around and fully extend their limbs. Legislators later expanded the law to ban the sale of eggs in the state from any hens that were not raised in compliance with its animal care standards.


G: A Reuters investigation found that the Oklahoma-based oil company Continental Resources has been editing the company’s history on its website, changing facts and the dates of key achievements in ways that would benefit CEO Harold Hamm in his divorce settlement. According to state law, if Hamm can show that market conditions – rather than his own abilities – led to Continental’s financial success, he won’t have to share those gains with his wife after the divorce. Reuters showed the company was making edits to website that diminished company achievements or changed dates of achievements to before Hamm’s marriage.

Dr. Joey Senat, a communications law specialist and professor at Oklahoma State University, told Reuters, “We’ve got an entire trial being conducted in secret. Mr. Hamm is saying his divorce is a strictly personal matter, but apparently it’s not, because Continental says it will harm the company if the doors are opened. Meanwhile, on the website, Continental appears to be changing significant facts about itself.”

KJ: A new report from the credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s found that income inequality is contributing to state shortfalls in Oklahoma and across the country. Tulsa World reporter Randy Krehbiel wrote a column discussing the report, where he pointed out that stagnating middle class incomes may be especially damaging to Oklahoma municipalities because they are almost completely dependent on sales tax. Without a strong middle class in Oklahoma spending on local consumer goods, cities and towns are struggling to maintain services.

Krehbiel wrote, “It turns out, though, that the overarching reason for stagnant and even declining state and municipal revenue is that the biggest share of taxpayers — the broad middle class — simply don’t have as much to be taxed on as they used to.”

G: The Oklahoman reported that religious leaders, former inmates, and lawmakers held a rally at the state Capitol to call for criminal justice reform in Oklahoma. Many of those who spoke or came to show support for a loved one or friend behind bars told stories of drug addictions that led to incarceration. State Representative Bobby Cleveland, a Republican from Slaughterville, said at the rally that the state is doing a poor job of rehabilitating offenders. He said, “The problem we’ve got in our prison system is not Governor Fallin, it’s not [Department of Corrections] Director Patton, it’s not the correctional officers, it’s the legislators, passing bills that keep people in longer and not funding correctly. We’re the problem, and we’ve got to be the ones to straighten it out.”

Cleveland has an interim study scheduled later this month that will evaluate how the state can benefit from smart on crime initiatives.

KJ: Cache resident Jimmy Beeson told the Oklahoman the he came to the rally to support his childhood friend John Overstreet, who is serving three life terms plus several years on drug possession charges. Beeson said Overstreet was a good man who raised cattle and farmed and always went out of his way for others. He said Overstreet developed a drug habit that consumed him and ruined his life, but after 16 years behind bars he is an old man who has paid his debt to society.

“I’d like to see him get out before he dies,” Beeson said.

Oklahoma Policy Institute has previously suggested several needed reforms to the state’s criminal justice system, including eliminating barriers to employment for ex-felons, reevaluating sentencing for non-violent drug offenses, improving post-release supervision and services to make sure ex-felons don’t end up back in prison, and funding effective alternatives to incarceration.

G: The Oklahoman editorial board argued that a recent murder in Moore may make sensible reforms a tougher sell. Following the murder, two Oklahoma district attorneys made statements to media that the suspect in the killing should have been kept in prison longer for a previous drug possession conviction.

G: Now for this week’s numbers of the day. On Monday, our number of the day was 3 to 1. That’s the rate at which suicide deaths in Oklahoma outnumber homicides. 3 suicides for every homicide.

KJ: Tuesday’s number was $26.42. That’s the median hourly wage for statisticians in Oklahoma. $26.42 per hour.

G: Wednesday’s number was 63,270. That’s how many children received subsidized childcare from the Oklahoma Department of Human Services in 2013, so their parents could go to a job or school.

KJ: Thursday’s number was 34. That’s how many critical access hospitals are in Oklahoma. These are typically small, with no more than 25 beds and rural hospitals, that are the only acute-care option in isolated areas of the state.

G: Finally, Friday’s number was 27.8 percent. That’s the percentage of income that renters in Oklahoma devoted to housing in 2013, up from 24.3 percent in 2000.



KJ: It’s election season in Oklahoma. There’s just four weeks until the next general election to pick Oklahoma’s governor and numerous state offices. Now is a good time to look into the state of democracy in Oklahoma. I’ll speak with Oklahoma Policy Institute Executive Director David Blatt about some research he’s been doing into the health of democracy in Oklahoma. Hi, David.

D: Hey Kara Joy

KJ: So what are the numbers for democratic participation in Oklahoma?

D: The numbers aren’t good at all.  The most striking example came from the primary run-off elections in August, which admittedly are an extreme case, but do represent some more broad based problems.  On the ballot in August, there was a run-off election for State-Superintendent of instruction, one of the most important and controversial offices in the state.  There was a run-off between John Cox and Freda Deskin for the democratic nomination.  Just 10.8% of registered democrats went to vote on that race

KJ: Wow

D: So again, that is an extreme example, and party primary races have their own problems, but if you look at the presidential election of 2012, Oklahoma voter turnout was under 50%.  We had the third lowest voter turnout in 2012.  In non-presidential years, like 2010, and looking ahead to 2014, we are under 40%, and for 2014, it is likely that we are looking at having even less.  We know that questions of voter turnout and voter registrations are an issues nationwide, but it’s particularly severe in Oklahoma.  One other figure is on the voter registration side, is that a quarter of all eligible voters in Oklahoma haven’t even registered to vote.  We’re at about 75%.  So we have barriers for people registering to vote, and even once they are registered, getting them to the polls, even in the most competitive state wise elections or national elections are tough, and when you go down to local level of races for representative, local, judges, or schoolboard, participation drops off even more steeply.

KJ: Wow, it’s surprising that so many Oklahomans are letting other people make these important decisions for them.  So we’re got low voter turnout and low voter registration.  What are some other signs that our democracy isn’t working the way it should?

D: One is that we are seeing fewer and fewer people running for office.  This year we are having the upcoming November elections, of the 101 seats of Oklahoma House of Representatives, less than 40 of them are going to be contested by 2 or more candidates.  In almost 2/3 of seats, people will not have the opportunity to go to the polls in November to choose their representative.  That’s the case in half the Senate seats as well, and 3 or 4 of the 9 races for state wide office.  You either have only one person file for the seat, or one party candidates file, so the primary election ended up determining the winner.  If you look back 20-25 years ago, you would see more seats that were competitive.  Very often you would have 4, 6, 8 candidates running in a primary, and a more competitive election, so we’re seeing a real decline in that area.  We’re also seeing, particularly in our legislature, that it doesn’t look Oklahoma.  We have only 15% of our state legislators are women in Oklahoma.  That’s among the very lowest rates in the nation.  We have very few minorities.  We have 5 or 6 African Americans, and we have 1 Hispanic American Legislator in a state where 10% of the population is Hispanic, and about 10% of the population in African American.  So we’re also not succeeding in diversifying our representation, so that our legislature looks more like the population that it’s representing.

KJ: I see.  How has all this affecting who gets elected in Oklahoma?

D: It’s hard to say definitively, because I think we would have to look more broadly at this, and look more at the academic literature, but it does seem to be having a more polarizing effect.  When you have lower voter turnout, particularly in the primaries, it tends to be candidates who maybe are further to the right and further to the left are more successful in driving a small segment of the electorate to the polls, and those in the center are not voting at all.  We’ll talk more about this, but the fact that we have a closed primary system, and independents in the state, which is a growing segment in the election, are shut out from the primaries entirely.  Independents tend to be more in the center- that too may be adding to the polarizing aspect.

KJ: I see.  So clearly things aren’t working as well as they should. Do we have any ideas for why Oklahomans aren’t participating?

D: I think there are a lot of reasons.  We can broadly divide them into cultural reasons and institutional reasons.  Culturally, what we see in Oklahoma, and in the nation as a whole, is a mixture of apathy and cynicism.  People are not well informed, are not able to easily follow what’s going on, and when they do hear about politics, particularly with the growth of 24 hours tv talk shows, you hear politicians and pundits screaming at each other.  You certainly have the impression of nothing getting done in Washington.  That’s creating a broad based cynicism that’s affecting state and local politics as well, even if they may not be as polarized or as dysfunctional as what we see in Washington.  We have a lot of people who feel like they don’t have a real rule, or feel like there’s too much money in the system, or politicians are captives of special interests.  This is something that is a long standing concern that people feel like they don’t have the mechanisms to have a real say.  At the same time, I think there are some institutional features of Oklahoma’s political system in particular that is driving down voter participation.  For example, Oklahoma has a closed primary system.  So all those seats where only 1 party’s candidates are on the ballot, the rest of the voters don’t have any say at all.  If there are only Republicans running in the primary, then Democrats and independents don’t have an opportunity to vote.  Other states have an open primary system.  We have the primary run off system, which we see consistently in Oklahoma and in other states, where we do have that primary run off where if nobody gets 50%, you have a second vote several weeks down the road: that drives down voter turnout as well.  We have very high thresholds to get on the ballot.  Oklahoma was actually the only state in 2012 that had only 2 presidential candidates to choose from.

KJ: Oklahoma was the only state?

D: The only state.  Everywhere else in the nation, Libertarian candidate Larry Johnson, and most other states had other candidates on the ballot as well.

KJ: I had no idea!  And I think most other Oklahomans don’t know that either.

D: We have very high thresholds, and we go into detail on the blog post that you’ll link to, as to what exactly are the qualifications to get on the ballot.  But it’s extremely hard to get on the ballot as a third party or as a third party candidate.  That’s where some reformers have really focused.  If you did have more candidates, chances are they aren’t going to win most of the time, but you would at least have more people coming out and showing interest in the process. If you had open primaries, you would have to appeal to a broader set of voters.

KJ: Absolutely.  It changes the conversation.  I think most Oklahomans would be frustrated to know that other Americans have more choices than we do.

D: They do.  They also have more information.  There are some states where voters are all mailed out a candidate guide before a vote.  It is put together by a non-partisan entity that provides you with basic information, mail you out a sample ballot.  We are now at a point where you can go online and put in your address and zip code and see what your ballot will look like.  In other states that is mailed out to you.  We do have early voting in Oklahoma, but only for three days.  Many states now have moved to 15, 30 days, and even longer periods.  Other states have made it easier to cast absentee ballots.  There are quite a few things that we could be looking at that would address these issues

KJ: So are there other reforms that could make our democracy more accessible to the average citizen?

D: I think there are a lot of things that should be on the table and one of things we’re trying to do here at OK policy is solicit ideas from people, get a discussion going, and see what ideas might make sense for Oklahoma.  Certainly some form of open primary system might serve to enfranchise independents, and lead to more competitive races.  Doing away with the current primary system where voters may be able to do an instant run off, where when they first vote, they can order their choices first, second, and third, and then if nobody gets over 50% than their second choices of candidates who finish at the bottom are automatically rolled over.  That’s a system that’s use in some places.

KJ: I like that ranking system.  It means that the candidate that wins is actually the one that got the most support overall.

D: That’s right, and here you’re guaranteed 50%, but you’re guaranteed 50% of a much reduced base. So you have the situation, like I referred to in the race for state superintendent instruction, John Cox, in this case, won with 6% of the Democrats voting.  So if you had a system in where there were 4 candidates in the first ballot, people had cast a preferential ballot, the winner would have still gotten 50%, but it would have been 50% of more.  That I think can have a whole bunch of positive effects.  Some people are calling for a proportional representation system, where we would divide the state into a smaller number of districts, with each district electing multiple representatives.  So you might have 5 senate districts, with 10 seats each, and within each of those districts, the number of seats would be allocated based on the overall share of the vote.  You’d actually favor smaller parties; you would make sure that if you were a Democrat in a predominantly republican area, you still might have 1 or 2 of the ten representing you, or vice versa.  That’s one of the ideas I think we’re going to explore further in an upcoming guest blog post, and they want to talk about it.  Things that allow people to feel more represented and more engaged in the process could go some of the way to address some of the problems we’ve talked about.

KJ: David, these are some really exciting ideas.  I think Oklahomans can and should get more involved.  In fact, we have until October 10 to register for the November 4th election, so if you aren’t registered, I hope everyone will get it in by 10/10.  And thank you so much for talking with us today.

D: Sure, and just hope the people we have put up a couple blog post on OKpolicy.org and would love to have people go take a look at what we have written, and also share with us your comments and ideas for what we can be doing to get more Oklahomans engaged in their democracy.

KJ: Absolutely, thanks so much.

D: My Pleasure

KJ: For our closing good news of the week, newly released data from the Census Bureau shows that America’s high school dropout rate has reached a record low. In 2013, just 7% of the nation’s 18-to-24 year olds had dropped out of high school, continuing a steady decline in the nation’s dropout rate since 2000, when 12% of youth were dropouts.

The decline in high school dropouts has been especially dramatic among Black and Hispanic students. Though Hispanic students still had the highest dropout rate at 14%, that’s down sharply from the 32% of Hispanic 18- to 24-year olds who were high school dropouts in 2000. The dropout rate for black students also fell by nearly half since 2000, from 15 percent to 8 percent.

Among non-Hispanic white youth, the dropout rate has also declined since 2000 to 5 percent in 2013.

G: That’s all for this week’s OK PolicyCast. You can find more about the stories we talked about today at okpolicy.org. See you next time!


Gene Perry worked for OK Policy from 2011 to 2019. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism.

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