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.
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.”
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.
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.