In deep red Oklahoma, Republican lawmakers have taken a few actions in the name of election security since the 2020 presidential election that make it more difficult to vote.
Lawmakers have passed measures to conduct random audits after elections, to alert law enforcement if more than 10 are registered to vote at a single address and to reinstate a notary requirement for absentee ballots that had been temporarily suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
That reinstatement was widely condemned because of its potential for limiting elderly, disabled and poor voters who might want to vote absentee.
“…It is abundantly clear that the real motivation is to make it harder for Oklahomans to exercise their power at the ballot box,” former ACLU of Oklahoma Executive Director Ryan Kiesel said at the time.
But ultimately, it’s all pretty low impact because the state had significant barriers to voting in place to begin with, said Andy Moore, a founder of People Not Politicians, a coalition of groups that unsuccessfully tried to get a state question on the ballot to create a bipartisan redistricting commission.
“Oklahoma … didn’t make the positive changes years ago to be rolled back now,” he said.
Oklahoma is one of only six states that has straight ticket voting, which allows voters to simply say they vote for members of a single party for each race and move on.
That dynamic can help a majority party stay in power. Moore said the party in power has always wanted to keep it that way, whether it’s the GOP now or Democrats a generation ago. And it all adds up to low turnout and low interest in elections by voters who don’t feel they can make a difference. In 2020, Oklahoma had the lowest voter participation rate in the country.
In 2018, the unthinkable happened. An Oklahoma congressional district went blue. Democrat Kendra Horn upset two-term incumbent Steve Russell in an Oklahoma City-area race that shocked the Oklahoma – and national – political establishment.
Horn lost her re-election bid in 2020 to Republican Stephanie Bice. And Oklahoma state lawmakers in charge of redrawing Congressional lines ensured 2018 wouldn’t happen in the foreseeable future.
About this series
This project looks at the state of voting access, voting rights and inequities in political representation in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
In 2021, Oklahoma’s Republican supermajority in the state legislature led a redistricting process that all but ensured its party would have a lock on congressional seats over the next decade.
The state’s 5th Congressional district was re-made into a safely Republican seat, carving out much of the southside of Oklahoma City – which included approximately 80,000 Hispanic voters – and putting it into a primarily rural District 3, while adding deep-red counties to the district that Horn won.
“There’s no doubt in my mind … that this will withstand judicial scrutiny,” Republican State Rep. Ryan Martinez said at the time. And so far he’s been proven correct with no judicial challenges to the map.
There have been efforts to change Oklahoma’s redistricting process.
Moore led an unsuccessful effort to get a referendum question on the statewide ballot to create a bipartisan redistricting commission. Those types of efforts have been successful in creating significant reforms in Oklahoma that sidestep the Republican-controlled legislature, including legalizing medical marijuana and expanding Medicaid.
It fizzled out because of the pandemic and Moore said the timing to bring it back won’t come along for another decade, when it’s time to draw district lines again.
Online registration, some day
Seven years ago, Oklahoma’s legislature passed a law to allow for online voter registration.
Today, Oklahoma is still one of only 10 states that doesn’t offer online voter registration, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
State law mandates the Department of Public Safety cross-reference online voter registration records with a driver’s license or other state-issued identification. But that agency’s operations related to identification cards have generally been in disarray for years.
“This is dependent upon technical issues that are outside the control of the State Election Board,” State Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax, the state’s top election official, told Oklahoma Watch in July.
Voter purges are common around the country, but have a knack for mistakenly booting qualified voters off the rolls, per a Brennan Center for Justice report.
Every odd-numbered year, Oklahoma purges tens of thousands of voter registration records from its rolls, which include more than 2.2 million registered voters total. In 2019, Oklahoma purged 88,276 names from its voter rolls. In 2021, the state removed 115,007.
“Oklahoma’s voter list maintenance process occurs every two years and has been conducted in essentially the same manner since the mid-1990s,” Ziriax said at the time. “Maintaining clean and updated voter rolls protects our democracy by making it far more difficult for someone to use outdated voter lists to attempt to commit fraud or disrupt our elections.”
Voters are removed from the rolls after not voting in two consecutive general elections or failing to respond to an address confirmation request after not voting from the State Election Board.
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