Authors: Cole Allen, Vivian Morris, Gabriela Ramirez-Perez
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Oklahoma’s democracy is inaccessible to many Oklahomans, especially those in historically marginalized communities. We’ve consistently had among the nation’s lowest rates of electoral participation, with only 4 in 10 eligible Oklahomans voting in the November 2022 midterm election. Despite this low participation rate, Oklahoma has made it increasingly difficult to vote by requiring absentee ballots to be notarized and failing to deliver an electronic voter registration system. Studies show laws that make it harder to vote disproportionately impact marginalized communities, two of which are American Indian/Alaska Natives and naturalized citizens. We cannot fully understand Oklahoma’s voting equity and accessibility issues without understanding how Oklahoma’s diverse communities are disproportionately affected by these issues. Making voting harder decreases voter turnout, which means that our democracy is less representative of Oklahoma than it should be.
Oklahoma’s democracy needs to be easier to access for all Oklahomans
All Oklahomans who are eligible to vote should be able to exercise their voting rights as easily as possible. However, barriers significantly affect voters’ ability and willingness to do so, which decreases participation in our elections. In the 2022 midterm elections, only 40.1 percent of voting eligible Oklahomans cast a ballot. This is 6.5 percent lower than the national turnout rate of 46.6 percent. Compared to the rest of the nation, Oklahoma has a major voter turnout problem. When elections have such low turnout, they do not fully represent the interests of the people, which can lead to poor policy making, less responsive elected officials, and diminished trust in the government.
Increasing access to the ballot will help improve Oklahoma’s voter turnout, especially among historically marginalized communities. Oklahoma has a diverse population with many different voices, but the disenfranchisement of historically marginalized populations still impacts voters today. While there are some federal protections for marginalized communities’ ballot access (like the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Help America Vote Act of 2002), much of the responsibility to protect the right to vote falls on states.
Oklahoma needs to ensure that the ballot is accessible to all Oklahomans. One way Oklahoma can expand access to the ballot is to implement full electronic voter registration. In 2015, the Oklahoma Legislature directed the State Election Board to create and implement an electronic voter registration system. However, this system has yet to come online. Other states have found that online voter registration is quick, convenient, and more accessible than registering through the mail. Studies have shown that electronic voter registration increases voter turnout. However, there is currently not enough research or data that shows the impact of electronic voter registration on historically marginalized communities.
It is crucial for the health of our democracy that voting be equitably accessible to all, including tribal citizens
[Supporting documentation for history timeline]
While residents of the United States since time immemorial, American Indians/Alaska Natives (AI/AN) have not always been allowed to participate in America’s democracy. Poll taxes, literacy tests, fraud, physical intimidation, and Jim Crow laws and their ongoing present-day legacy mean that accessing the ballot has required numerous policies to protect democracy for tribal citizens. The state can and should do more to help ensure that AI/AN Oklahomans can vote.
In the top 10 Oklahoma counties with the highest share of AI/AN residents, the median turnout for the 2022 midterm election was 29.45 percent compared to the 10 counties with the least share of AI/AN residents at 32.22 percent, indicating that counties with higher AI/AN populations continue to lag. Efforts to bolster Oklahoma’s voter participation should reach AI/AN voters.
|Top 10 Oklahoma counties with overlapping tribal reservations and jurisdictions|
|County||Percent Populations AI/AN||Overlapping Reservations(s) and Tribal Jurisdiction(s)|
|Adair||43.88%||United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians and Cherokee Nation|
|Cherokee||33.92%||United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians and Cherokee Nation|
|Latimer||22.49%||Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma|
|Sequoyah||22.32%||United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians and Cherokee Nation|
|Delaware||21.99%||United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians and Cherokee Nation|
|Craig||21.85%||United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians and Cherokee Nation|
|Caddo||21.63%||Wichita and Affiliated Tribes, Caddo Tribe, and Delaware Nation|
|Mayes||20.82%||United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians and Cherokee Nation|
|Ottawa||20.59%||Cherokee Nation, Miami Nation, Quapaw Nation, Peoria Tribe of Oklahoma, Ottawa Tribe of Oklahoma, Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, Modoc Tribe, Wyandotte Nation, Seneca Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma, and Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma|
[Data] | [Map of Oklahoma Tribal Jurisdictions]
A significant effort that will allow the state to further target outreach efforts is to consult with Tribal government leaders about strategies and solutions that can help more AI/AN Oklahomans vote, while also identifying current voting barriers. Organizations like Vote Your Values and Rock the Native Vote have combined efforts to improve the accessibility to the democratic process by helping AI/AN voters register to vote and increasing understanding of the registration process. However, the onus should not be on grassroots organizations to ensure AI/ANs are no longer excluded from the democratic process.
Oklahoma previously has made improvements in increasing ballot access for AI/AN Oklahomans. For example, Oklahoma’s 2010 Voter ID law allowed IDs issued by federally recognized tribes to be used as proof of identity when voting in Oklahoma, making it more accessible for tribal citizens to vote. Increasing AI/AN access to the vote will help ensure more Oklahomans generally can vote, and ensuring the inclusion of AI/AN Oklahomans in state elections means that AI/AN Oklahomans can participate in the democratic process.
Voting needs to be accessible to new citizens with limited English proficiency
Another group that has faced issues in accessing the ballot are naturalized citizens, who are immigrants that have gone through the long and expensive process to become U.S. citizens. In Oklahoma, there are almost 100,000 new citizens who have limited English proficiency, which can serve as a barrier for their ability to exercise their rights to cast ballots. Currently, no laws in Oklahoma guarantee that citizens can access election materials in a language other than English. In fact, only Texas County in Oklahoma offers bilingual election materials, due to a federal law requiring bilingual materials to be offered if more than five percent of the population of all voting-age citizens in a jurisdiction speak a language other than English. Language accessibility is an important piece of democracy and in Oklahoma, languages like Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese and Native American languages are the most commonly spoken languages other than English.
To ensure that Oklahoma’s democratic process is accessible and inclusive, our legislators should require election materials be available in the most commonly spoken languages of each county. Historically, naturalized citizens’ voter participation has lagged behind that of U.S.-born citizens, with 62 percent of U.S.-born citizens participating in the 2016 election compared to 54 percent for naturalized citizens. Removing barriers that may keep eligible people from voting is an important part of increasing voter participation and making democracy more accessible to all citizens.
Our democracy is stronger when more people vote
In the 2022 midterm elections, fewer than half of eligible Oklahoma voters turned out to make their voices heard. There are steps elected officials and policymakers can take to help increase voter turnout and strengthen our democracy. A first action should be the State Election Board fully implementing electronic voter registration that lawmakers directed them to do nearly eight years ago. This will make registering to vote more convenient and accessible to all voters.
Oklahoma local election officials can begin by addressing barriers to voting and improve AI/AN voter participation by partnering with tribal leaders on voter registration and engagement opportunities. Officials should also ensure language barriers don’t shut out new citizens from participating in our democratic process.
Oklahoma has seen its economic and cultural strength greatly improve when tribal and state leaders work in direct partnership and naturalized citizens have long proven their commitment to our democratic process by going above and beyond to acquire the right to vote. Oklahoma needs to do its part to remove barriers to accessing the ballot so Oklahomans of all walks of life can have their voices heard. Addressing these issues is the first step to strengthening our democracy by making it accessible to all citizens.