Low voter turnout is a serious problem in Oklahoma, as we’ve discussed previously in issue briefs and blog posts. Most recently, just one in three eligible voters in Oklahomans went to the polls in the 2014 mid-term election. Electoral disengagement is especially acute for low-income citizens. Yet thanks to an important agreement reached last month, it will be easier for more low-income Oklahomans to register to vote and engage in the electoral process.
Electoral participation is a cornerstone of our representative democracy. The vote allows citizens to participate freely and fairly in the political process and ensures that elected officials stay accountable to their constituents. When citizens don’t vote, their opinions and interests may go unrepresented. The vote is especially important for disadvantaged groups, such as low-income citizens, racial minorities, and those with disabilities, who have little capacity to hire lobbyists, donate to campaigns, or find other ways to exercise political influence. Yet, with some exceptions, these groups tend to have the lowest rates of voter turnout.
In the last two national election years, households with annual income below $30,000 have registered and voted at rates ten to fifteen percentage points below the national average and fifteen to twenty points below households with incomes above $30,000, according to election surveys conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau (see graph). In Oklahoma, overall registration and voting rates have lagged considerably below the national average and have fallen to among the very lowest in the nation.
In order to facilitate and encourage voting by all segments of the population, the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, also known as the Motor Voter Act, included a requirement that states provide voter registration services to individuals who apply for public benefits, such as Medicaid, food stamps (now the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), and the WIC nutrition program. Section 7 of the NVRA specifically requires state agencies to ask each applicant if they would like to register to vote and to distribute a voter registration application with each application, recertification, renewal, and change of address, unless the applicant or client declines in writing.
In August 2012, Demos and other national organizations, on behalf of the Metropolitan Tulsa Urban League, the League of Women Voters of Oklahoma and Metropolitan Tulsa and the YWCA Tulsa, sent a notice letter to the Oklahoma State Elections Board asserting that the state was out of compliance with its responsibilities under the NVRA. According to the notice:
The biennial EAC [Election Assistance Commission] data show that the number of voter registration applications reported statewide by Oklahoma public assistance agencies declined dramatically since the initial implementation of the NVRA – from 58,811 registrations in 1995-96 to only 11,122 in 2011-2012, a decline of 81 percent.
The complaint used administrative data and fieldwork with DHS and Health Department clients to establish that the state was violating the law and threatened litigation if officials did not take action to come into compliance.
[pullquote]”This landmark agreement in a Republican-dominated state shows the bipartisan importance of ensuring the right to vote, and will undoubtedly serve as a model for the region.”[/pullquote]Although they disputed the alleged violations, Oklahoma’s Election Board, along with leadership from the three agencies cited in the complaint – DHS, the Oklahoma Health Care Authority and the State Health Department – worked closely and successfully with Demos and other organizations to address the problem. Under a 29-page settlement announced July 30th, each agency will be required to ask clients if they want to register to vote and provide help with the process as part of in-person, phone-based, and online client services. Each agency will assign a staff member to be responsible for coordinating voter registration services and training other employees. The Election Board will appoint a statewide coordinator to ensure compliance, and they will report monthly data on the number of completed voter registration applications and other indicators.
In a press release, the lead attorney in the case, Jenn Borchetta of Demos, stated: “This landmark agreement in a Republican-dominated state shows the bipartisan importance of ensuring the right to vote, and will undoubtedly serve as a model for the region.”
The Oklahoman reacted less favorably to the agreement, questioning why poor people required special assistance with voter registration and asserting that Oklahoma doesn’t needs “apathetic people badgered into voting.” In reality, no one will be badgered into voting. The agreement simply ensures that the guiding principles of the National Voter Registration Act – that citizens be provided voter registration services wherever they interact with government agencies, whether applying for a drivers’ license or Medicaid – will be implemented. Helping more low-income people with voter registration will strengthen the fundamental democratic right to vote and hopefully make our political representatives more responsive to all the citizens they serve.