Factsheet: What to know about Online Voter Registration in Oklahoma [PDF]
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While lawmakers worked to make some improvements to Oklahoma’s democracy in the 2023 legislative session, there are still many opportunities to bring our state closer to national norms and best practices. Oklahoma has among the nation’s lowest voter turnout rates, driven in large part by policies that serve as obstacles to voting. These barriers both disincentivize voting and decrease its accessibility in Oklahoma, especially for marginalized communities. Beyond the voting booth, greater government transparency would help everyday Oklahomans to engage in the policymaking process.
Oklahoma’s 2023 legislative session presented a chance for lawmakers to expand democracy in our state. Despite passing a few bills that will increase access to the ballot for some Oklahomans, the legislature disappointingly entertained and, in some cases, passed other bills designed to significantly limit Oklahomans’ ability to participate in the democratic process. At a time when citizens feel increasingly frustrated with the democratic process, lawmakers should be working to more deeply engage residents rather than pushing them away.
The legislature made some strides to improve democracy…
This session, Oklahoma lawmakers passed bills to increase poll worker pay and to clarify language regarding absentee ballots for some voters.
Senate Bill 290 by Sen. Warren Hamilton, R-McCurtain, will double compensation for poll workers to address the shortage of election officials. Currently, Oklahoma poll workers make $100 to $110 per day; SB 290 will double these rates to $200 to $225 per day starting in July 2024. Under the new rates, poll workers will be paid more fairly for their important work in keeping Oklahoma’s democracy running. Increasing compensation for our precinct officials will encourage more people to volunteer to serve as poll workers, helping ensure that precincts will be able to function efficiently on election day.
SB 376 by Sen. Brent Howard, R-Altus, clarifies the process for filing an absentee ballot for individuals who require assistance voting due to disability. Oklahoma voters who are physically incapacitated and unable to vote in person, as well as their caretakers who are unable to leave them unattended, can apply for a physically incapacitated absentee ballot with different procedures than standard absentee ballots. This form of absentee voting allows physically incapacitated voters who need help filling out their ballot and ballot request form to designate another person to fill in the ballot for them. Previously, it has been unclear which individual needed to sign the document. SB 376 clarifies that a voter needing assistance can direct another individual to sign the name of the voter on the ballot. With this clarification, the legislature made democracy more accessible for voters with disabilities.
…but also considered bills harmful to Oklahoma’s democracy
The legislature heard a number of bills harmful to Oklahoma’s democratic process this session. One of these bills, House Bill 2052 by Rep. Eric Roberts, R-Oklahoma City, was signed into law by the governor. This bill amends existing language around Oklahoma’s ability to join a state-to-state data sharing program designed to compare voter data among member states. This Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) helps states keep their voter rolls up-to-date and accurate more efficiently than they can on their own. When lawmakers effectively prohibit Oklahoma from joining ERIC, it limits our election officials from accessing important information like: voters moving between states, eligible but unregistered voters, and death reports from the Social Security Administration. Participating in ERIC would help Oklahoma officials ensure the security of our elections without placing unnecessary barriers between Oklahomans and the polls.
By contrast, SB 518 by Sen. Julie Daniels, R-Bartlesville, would have limited Oklahomans’ ability to run grassroots ballot measures. The bill would have created a ballot initiative filing fee up to $750, made it harder to verify initiative petition signatures, and extended the timeline for initiatives to be approved in the courts. Had this bill been passed into law, it would have imposed financial barriers to grassroots initiative petition campaigns and made it more difficult to collect signatures during Oklahoma’s already-short collection periods. These changes to the initiative petition process would harm Oklahoma’s direct democracy process. This bill passed the Senate, but was not heard in the House; it can still be heard next year, so concerned citizens should keep their eye on this bill.
SB 518 is part of a national effort to limit citizen access to direct democracy, which in Oklahoma comes through its Constitutionally guaranteed right to the initiative petition. The ballot measure gives Oklahomans the opportunity to approve changes in Oklahoma’s laws and constitution without the legislature’s interference. This process has produced some of the most impactful and positive changes in recent years such as Medicaid expansion in State Question 802, legalization of medical marijuana in SQ 788, and landmark criminal justice reform in SQs 780 and 781. It also allowed voters to reject SQ 820 in March 2023, which would have legalized adult, recreational marijuana use.
However, lawmakers missed opportunities to improve democracy
Despite legislators’ efforts, several bills meant to address shortfalls in Oklahoma’s democratic process failed to advance.
HB 2287 by Rep. John Pfeiffer, R-Orlando, would have improved Oklahomans’ access to information through Open Records Requests. Under this bill, the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office would create a public access counselor to review appeals for open records requests that have been delayed or denied. While the bill passed both chambers, lawmakers were unable to reconcile conflicting versions of HB 2287 by deadline. However, the bill may be reconsidered next year.
Similarly, HB 1629 by Rep. Regina Goodwin, D-Tulsa, would have clarified voting rights for individuals whose felony convictions were pardoned, discharged, or commuted. Under Oklahoma law, people serving a felony conviction are barred from voting; once that sentence is completed, their right to vote is restored. However, despite guidance from the state Attorney General, current law does not specify when voting rights are restored for Oklahomans whose felony sentences were shortened through a commutation, pardon, or discharge; this has left many Oklahomans unsure of when they can vote again. HB 1629 passed the House, but was not heard in the Senate committee. Until the bill can be revisited next year, the lack of clarity remains a problem for justice-involved Oklahomans who want to exercise their right to vote.
Finally, SB 90 by Sen. Julia Kirt, D-Oklahoma City, would have established a deadline for the State Election Board to release an online voter registration platform to the public, as directed in Oklahoma statute in 2015. Although this bill did not receive a hearing, the State Election Board finally released its new online voter registration system in July 2023 without further legislative direction. The online voter registration system will expand access to democracy in Oklahoma.
Next year, lawmakers should prioritize access to democracy
The Oklahoma Legislature has a responsibility to ensure that all Oklahomans can use their voice and participate in our democracy. Moving forward, the legislature should prioritize bills like HB 2287 or HB 1629 that expand opportunities for Oklahomans to engage in democracy, both at the ballot box and beyond. Increasing government transparency and expanding voting rights are important steps to protect Oklahoma’s democracy.
Furthermore, they should also avoid bills that make our democracy less efficient, less accessible, and less representative for everyday Oklahomans. Limiting the initiative petition process and constraining our election officials’ access to information are antithetical to a healthy and functioning democracy in Oklahoma. Instead, lawmakers should double down on efforts to expand clarity and transparency in state government so that all Oklahomans can understand and participate in the tough work of democracy.