On Voter Registration in Oklahoma

Recently, Russell Burman of The Atlantic praised Oklahoma for agreeing to make a plan to comply with the 1993 National Voter Registration Act (NVRA)… without going to court. The secondary headline called this event “a rare red-state accord for more voter access.” But, Oklahoma shouldn’t be praised for agreeing to obey a law it doesn’t like. We all do that. Furthermore, this accord isn’t really for more voter access; it’s more like an accord to meet a pre-set minimum of voter access. And even with this plan for meeting a minimum level of voter access, Oklahoma has a long way to go to further increase voter access and engagement.

The History:

About a year ago, Demōs (among other voters’ rights groups) sent a letter to the Oklahoma Election Board letting them know that they are not in compliance with the part of the NVRA that requires Oklahoma to provide voter registration forms and assistance to citizens who visit public assistance agencies. Through interviews with both clients and workers, Demōs found that clients weren’t receiving information about voter registration and workers didn’t always know that this service was part of their job.

According to the Atlantic article, Demōs and Oklahoma have announced an agreement in which the state will ask any person who interacts with welfare agencies whether they want to register to vote and then to help them through the registration process, if they want. (The article says this will include help with online registration, but as of right now, you still have to mail in your registration in Oklahoma. So, I’m not sure what that part means. I guess maybe the fact that you can download the registration form?) When asked about the agreement, Bryan Dean, a spokesman for Oklahoma’s election board, said that it was clear that Oklahoma wasn’t being asked to do more than enforce the NRVA. He went on to note that the plan the state has committed to “isn’t costing us money.”

My Take: 

Oklahoma Board of Elections, I’m glad you’re ready to enforce this Act. I’m glad more people will likely register to vote because of this plan. But, as Bryan Dean indicated, this isn’t a big deal. [Edit: see Mr. Dean’s comment below on why this is, actually, a big deal for OK.] You are agreeing to enforce an Act in a way that doesn’t cost you money. The NVRA should have already been enforced across the state.

I don’t think an accord is surprising. It was clear that Oklahoma wasn’t enforcing the Act – an act already in place. It is unfair to compare Oklahoma’s lack of compliance with other Voters’ Rights issues, such as the creation of new laws about residency requirements or ID requirements. Oklahoma wasn’t writing some new legislation to see how far it could push the envelope on Voters’ Rights. It was ignoring an act already in place.

Future Steps:

Now, Oklahoma State Election Board, when you train your public assistance workers about this service, you should invite you drivers’ license workers, too. On your website, you say that “You will be offered a voter registration application when you get your driver’s license.” Except, I wasn’t offered any information about voter registration when I got my license here. And, when I asked about it (because I had done my research and knew how to register in this state without buying my own stamp or having my own printer), I was met with a confused look before being directed to a corner of the building, where I filled out my own form. (I have previously blogged about registering to vote here in Oklahoma.) Since you’re already training a group of people, just expand the people who should be trained.

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3 thoughts on “On Voter Registration in Oklahoma”

  1. Sara, I came across your blog just now when I was Googling for the original Atlantic article. I wanted to let you know, we did include tag agents (who issue motor licenses in Oklahoma) as part of our NVRA efforts. I am the NVRA coordinator for the state, and I have spent a lot of time educating tag agents over the past year or so. At the same time we were addressing the public assistance agency issues, we implemented many of the same practices for tag agents. We do have some difficulty with tag agencies because, unlike the public assistance agencies, they are independent contractors, so we have to deal with them on an individual basis when problems arise. We are in the process of implementing online voter registration. It was authorized last year by the state Legislature, with our support. It will take us some time to get a system up and running, but when we do that, we anticipate automating the process at tag agencies, which should make all of this much easier.

    I didn’t say that this agreement “isn’t a big deal.” You are correct that the agreement involves enforcing a law that has been on the books for some time. It’s not costing us additional money, but it does require substantial staff time in a pretty small agency. We only have about 20 employees, and I now spend more of my time on NVRA issues than any other job function (I also respond to records request, maintain the website, answer public e-mails, write press releases, handle media inquiries and public outreach, among other things). It also required a lot of work to update our registration materials and develop new processes to accommodate the agreement. We are going well beyond what the law requires of us for minimum NVRA compliance. For example, we proactively came up with the idea of putting NVRA reports online and creating a special page on our website for NVRA. No other state was doing that. We are doing that because we take the NVRA seriously and want to make sure it is being enforced. We want as many people as possible to register and vote. We have no control over the politics, and we try very hard to stay out of politics because we want to maintain professionalism and objectivity. The people who work here, to a person, are dedicated to making sure every eligible voter casts a ballot and that those ballots get counted accurately.

    It’s also worth noting not just that this agreement was reached, but that it was done with a level of cooperation that Demos and the other voting advocacy groups had not seen before. In most states, they have had to fight this in court. We came to our first meeting with an outline for a compliance plan that looked very much like the final agreement. The three major public assistance agencies involved (DHS, Health and the Healthcare Authority) all participated in the process and have continued to work with us cooperatively on implementing it. Nothing is ever perfect, and we continue to work on any problems we come across, but if you ask the groups that worked with us on the agreement about our compliance (Demos, ACLU, etc.), I expect they will tell you they have used us an example for other states to follow.

    Should you have further questions about elections in Oklahoma, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

    Bryan Dean, Public Information Officer
    Oklahoma State Election Board
    bdean@elections.ok.gov

    1. Mr. Dean,

      Thank you for your comment and also for the all work you and your office have done to increase voter rights in Oklahoma.

      I did not mean to downplay you and your office’s willingness to collaborate with other groups to increase voter rights. It is true that other states have balked at taking these steps, but you came to the table ready to work on a solution. Thank you. And I did not mean to downplay the large amount of work you and a small group of others do. Thank you.

      I am something of a Pollyanna when it comes to issues like voter access and civic engagement, though, and I wish we lived in a world where all states had the resources and the desire to improve engagement. I grew up in Minnesota, a state where it is easy to vote, where the residents consistently vote for laws that make it easy to vote, and where there is concern when the state drops out of the top five for voter turn out (http://www.startribune.com/worrisome-trends-in-minnesota-voter-turnout/282344851/). I grew up in an environment where people were proud of their engagement and also asked themselves why we didn’t have an even higher turnout on election day (http://www.cnn.com/2012/10/27/opinion/ctl-minnesota-best-voting/).

      1. I didn’t think your comments were unfair or anything. I share your frustration on turnout. Additionally, if people have to wait in lines on election day, they get upset. Lines are a good thing. It means higher turnout. If you are willing to wait in line for a ticket to the latest Avengers movie or to buy the newest iPhone or to get into Best Buy on Black Friday, I think you should be willing to wait in line to vote. Or just vote by mail, which is what I do. Ultimately, turnout is driven by the perception of competitive races and advertising money spent by the various campaigns and parties. They can buy more media in a day than we will get from all of our press releases and earned media in a year. One of the reasons we had good turnout in the March 1 presidential primary was that it was early enough in the cycle that it mattered. If people perceive the election is decided before they show up because there are no competitive races, it is really hard to get them to get out and vote.

        That is not to say there isn’t more we can do structurally to encourage voter participation. There are lots of ideas out there that might help, and there are people in the state Legislature who are looking at that. Most of those big changes require a change in the law and likely more money as well. That is obviously a limiting factor at the moment.

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