Nikki Hager, a senior Political Science and Economics major at the University of Tulsa, is the Co-founder and President of the TU chapter of Common Sense Action. This is one of a series of responses to OK Policy’s blog posts on Oklahoma’s “broken democracy”.
Oklahoma democracy is indeed broken. Voter turnout remains abysmally low. Young people especially are largely left out of the political process. Politics are dominated not by innovation and compromise but by partisan gridlock and stagnation.
Not only did Oklahoma have the third lowest overall voter turnout in 2012, but at 27 percent, it also had the second lowest youth turnout. In contrast, Mississippi—the only state to perform worse than Oklahoma in general turnout—had the highest relative turnout of young voters at just over 68 percent.
Turnout in party primary elections is especially low in Oklahoma – in this year’s primary elections, less than 1 in 3 registered voters cast ballots in the first round of primaries, and in the run-offs, turnout was under 20 percent. In districts where one political party dominates, primaries are particularly important, as the winner of the primary often determines the winner of the general election. When voter turnout falls to extremely low levels, it makes it easy for small groups of committed groups to mobilize their members, often over-representing extremist and single-interest groups. Extremist voters lead to extremist politicians, leading to extremist policies, and threatening the viability of a government that relies on compromise.
Looking at state policies, it is clear that politicians fail to take into consideration their youngest constituents when they’re governing—a result of both low voter turnout and involvement among young people and a lack of long-term vision in the political process. Oklahoma ranks 49th in education spending per student and has the fourth highest incarceration rate in the country. These issues will affect young people more than any other generation.
If we want democracy to work in Oklahoma, more young people need to vote, not only in general elections but especially in the primaries.
Mobilizing Millennials is something Common Sense Action (CSA) is working to achieve. CSA is the first bipartisan, millennial advocacy organization and is active on 40 college campuses in 20 states across the nation. CSA works to bring Millennial voices to the policy-making table, including facilitating voting. Getting more young people to vote in primary elections is one of the reasons I worked to bring a CSA chapter to the University of Tulsa this fall.
The solution to our broken democratic process is two-fold.
First, my generation needs to take ownership and show up at the polls on our own initiative. This year the TU chapter of Common Sense Action has helped register over 120 young voters through the program Turbovote. One of the services Turbovote offers is a text reminder, helping young people participate in all elections, including primaries. TU CSA also seeks to bring together students, community leaders, and politicians to foster greater political involvement within the millennial generation.
At the same time, we also need policies to change in order to make democracy more effective. Oklahoma should open up primaries, allowing independents and members of the opposite party to vote, which is especially important when there is only a single party with a primary. This will help increase support for moderate politicians and lead to greater compromise as opposed to a political environment dominated by gridlock and partisan extremists on both sides of the aisle. Opening primaries to everyone would include more young people in the political process, especially because 50 percent of Millennials identify as independents.
Second, Oklahoma should take steps towards allowing online voter registration, making it easier for young people to vote. While people can access voter materials online, voter registration applications are still required to be sent by mail. Ask most of my generation if we have any stamps, or if we know where to buy them! Online voter registration would make it easier for young people to get involved.
Lastly, we must work towards instilling an active interest in the political process among the millennial generation. More young people should run for office, leading to more competitive rather than uncontested elections. Sixty percent of elected offices in Oklahoma are unopposed this year, giving voters little choice. This lack of competition leaves room for more young people to get involved and run for office. More Millennials in office means we have more of an opportunity to get our voices heard.
The effectiveness of a democracy is ultimately determined by its citizens. While there are several policy problems that need to be resolved, our priorities in fixing our broken democracy must also include finding new and innovative ways to reach out to all citizens and encourage civic involvement across all generations—especially the youngest among us.
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