Oklahoma’s democracy is broken

low turnout2Last month,  Oklahoma voters went to the polls for primary runoff elections. Well, a few voters went to the polls. Average turnout was a paltry 18.1 percent. In 11 of the 16 runoff contests, fewer than one in five registered voters cast a ballot to select their party’s nominee. In the two statewide Democratic primaries for Superintendent of Instruction and U.S. Senator, turnout was less than 11 percent.

Pitiful turnout in primaries is an extreme example of a broader breakdown of democratic participation in Oklahoma. Earlier this year, Oklahoma was ranked 47th among the states for electoral performance in a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts. On a majority of indicators in the study, including voter registration, turnout, voting wait time, and registration or absentee ballot problems, Oklahoma ranked among the bottom third of states.

In this post, we examine the signs of weakening political participation and representation in Oklahoma. In a follow-up post, we will consider some of the contributing factors behind our poor electoral performance and look at what we can do about it.

How is our electoral system broken? Let us count the ways

1.  Low voter registration

Oklahoma’s voter registration rate – the  percentage registered to vote among the total eligible adult population – was 76.9 percent in 2012, down 4 percentage points from 2008 and fourth lowest among the states for which the Pew study had data. This means that almost one out of four eligible adults is not even registered to vote. In 23 states, at least 85 percent of eligible voters are registered.

Voter registration in Oklahoma has remained almost flat for decades, even as the state population grows. As of January 2014, Oklahoma had 1,978,812 registered voters, an increase of just 0.6 percent compared to 1994 (1,966,273 registered voters) and of 2 percent compared to 2004 (1,938,377 registered voters).  During the corresponding two decade period (1993-2013), Oklahoma’s total population grew by some 650,000 people, or 20 percent.

Compared to 1994, the number of registered Democrats has fallen by 29 percent, while registration has increased by 30 percent for Republicans and by 306 percent for Independents.

2. Low voter turnout

Oklahoma’s voter turnout in the 2012 Presidential election was just 49 percent, third worst behind only Hawaii and West Virginia. Turnout was down 7 percentage points compared to the previous Presidential election in 2008. In the last Gubernatorial election year, 2010, turnout was 39 percent, which placed Oklahoma 40th in the nation. It is likely that turnout this November will be significantly lower than 39 percent, given the recent declines in voting and registration seen from the Pew data, and the fact that there are few competitive statewide and Congressional races.

In primary elections, turnout falls even lower. In June, there were 44 legislative primary races – 32 for the House (24 Republican primaries and 8 Democratic primaries) and 12 for the Senate (8 Republican and 4 Democratic). In the Republican primaries, just over 30 percent of registered party voters cast ballots, while in the Democratic primaries, turnout was about 22 percent. We then saw a further overall drop of almost 33 percent between the initial primary and the runoff in those races where no candidate received 50 percent of the vote in June.

3. Uncontested elections

 A basic democratic precept is that voters have the opportunity to choose their elected representatives from at least two candidates. In Oklahoma, that standard is being missed with alarming regularity.

This year, voters will have a choice of general election candidates in only 37 of 101 House seats and 13 of 25 Senate seats. In the Senate, eight candidates ran unopposed and four seats were settled in the party primaries. In the House, 50 candidates won election in unopposed seats while 14 seats were settled in the party primaries. Among incumbent legislators seeking re-election, 50 of 83 in the House managed not to draw an opponent, while 7 of 15 incumbent Senators drew no opposition.

Among nine positions for statewide offices, three incumbents were unopposed in 2014 and two offices were settled in the Republican primary, leaving just four offices to be decided by the voters in November. Only in Congressional races will a clear majority of voters actually get a a chance to cast a ballot this fall – both Senate seats and four out of five House seats drew candidates from both parties, as well as Independent candidates in most cases.

4. Unrepresentative legislature

The Oklahoma Legislature does not look like Oklahoma. In particular, women and minorities, with the exception of Native Americans, are considerably underrepresented.

In 2013, just 4 of 48 Senators and 16 of 101 House members in the state legislature were women. This ranked Oklahoma 3rd last, behind only South Carolina and Louisiana, in female representation. Since 2009, the number of female legislators has increased by four. Oklahoma currently has no women in Congress (this is unlikely to change in November), while four of 11 current statewide officeholders are women (that number may decrease by one or two after November).

The legislature currently has six African-American members and one Hispanic member, the  first in state history. If the legislature reflected these groups’ share of the overall state population, there would be 11 African-American and 15 Hispanic legislators.  Asians make up 2 percent of the state population, but there has never been an Asian member of the Legislature.

One bright spot is that Native Americans are well represented in the Legislature. In 2013, the  bipartisan House Native-American caucus included 26 members, up from 19 in the previous legislature.

In our next post, we’ll look at some of the causes for declining electoral participation in Oklahoma and invite suggestions for how to address the problem. If you have thoughts on this issue, please contribute a comment or email us at info@okpolicy.org  

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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 “Oklahoma’s democracy is broken

  1. Our youth voter situation in particular is dire, even considering that young people vote less than the general population. In 2012 the 18-29 turnout was 27.1% (second worst in the nation behind WV) and in 2010 turnout for voters in that age group was 19.3%.

  2. The easiest quick way to increase voter participation would be to lower the requirements for alternative parties to be recognized by the state. Oklahoma has the worst ballot access law in the nation, and changing this to something reasonable would result in the Libertarian Party, probably the Green Party, and perhaps one or two others or more running candidates for various offices. This would generate more interest in the process and the outcome and draw more voters but because of the positive and negative interest in the individual candidates as well as giving those who have an interest in politics but have given up on the two major parties a reason to vote.

    Arguments against participation by more parties and candidates are invariably either arguments that the status quo(which cannot seem to motivate people to vote) is perfectly fine or that voters are too stupid handle more than two choices.

  3. There are two things that can be done almost immediately one with little fuss and the other with a lot of screaming and hollering.
    Little fuss: Have Civics in the senior highschool year and have any eligible students fill out a voter registration as part of the class requirementl.

    Big screaming fuss: Allow registered independents to vote in which ever primary they want to.

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