Oklahoma’s voter registration deadline nears, other states provide more time

BY TREVOR BROWN
Oklahoma Watch
09/24/2020 02:30 PM
Main Cherokee Phoenix
A woman votes at a polling station in Norman on Aug. 25, 2020. WHITNEY BRYEN/OKLAHOMA WATCH
Potential Oklahoma voters have until Oct. 9 to register to vote and to verify that they won’t be locked out of this fall’s pivotal general election. 

But as state election officials and voting-access advocates marked National Voter Registration Day on Sept. 22 by reminding residents of the upcoming deadline, most of the rest of the country isn’t facing as extreme of a time crunch. 

Voters are given more time to register in 32 other states, including 19 that allow voters to register up until Election Day, according to a tally from the National Conference of State Legislatures. 

Access to voting has increasingly become a national issue in the lead up to the Nov. 3 election. The COVID-19 pandemic has added obstacles for many to ensure their ballot is counted while President Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed concerns, without providing evidence towards those fears, about the integrity of the election process.  

Oklahoma, in particular, has struggled throughout recent years to boost its voter turnout numbers. Nonprofit VOTE, a group that tracks election statistics, found that Oklahoma had the sixth lowest voter turnout (as percentage of the voting-age population) during the last presidential election in 2016. Oklahoma didn’t improve in 2018 either as the group reported Oklahoma had the fourth lowest turnout in the country. 

Oklahoma, one of 10 states without an official online voter registration website, has also seen a nearly 22% drop in new voter registration through the end of July compared to that point in the 2016 presidential election as COVID-19 restriction has added to the challenges in signing up new voters.

It’s too late for state lawmakers or the State Board of Election to move back the deadline this year and county election officials say doing so in upcoming years could present logistical and financial challenges. But some lawmakers say they are interested in revisiting the state’s longstanding voter registration deadline. 

“I would love to see Oklahoma look to some of these kind of efforts to better engage voters, and particularly younger voters because our voter engagement in my opinion is a real problem,” said Rep. Meloyde Blancett, D-Tulsa. “I’d love to study the nexus between more lenient registration deadlines and higher voter engagement and that would certainly interest me in pushing for loosening our deadlines.”

An Oklahoma Watch review of proposed legislation during the past decade, however, found there has been little legislative action to move back the state’s deadline.

One of the only attempts came in 2015 when Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt, then a Republican state senator, introduced a bill that would allow voters to register during the state’s three-day early-voting period that is held the Thursday, Friday and Saturday before an election. That bill died without getting a committee hearing. 

Legislative records show Senate Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, sponsored legislation in 2018 to do the same thing. But the Senate leader’s office said Treat was only attached to the bill due to a technicality because the sponsorship of the proposal was transferred to Treat because of his role as then-majority floor leader when Holt left the Senate to take the mayoral office. 

The state’s election officials have also said that changing the state’s voter registration deadline is unneeded and could increase costs and overwhelm election workers.

In response to a Democrat-backed congressional proposal in 2019 that would have, in part, required every state to offer same-day voter registration, Oklahoma Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax wrote that the current deadline is “very reasonable” and that a same-day registration mandate is not “feasible” given the current funding and staffing levels of county election boards in a letter to U.S. Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Oklahoma. 

“The logistics of predicting how many ballots to print and how many officials to assign to polling places, with the number of potential voters unknown, would be extremely difficult and inefficient,” he wrote. “Same-day voter registration increases the risk due to error or fraud that an ineligible person is allowed to register and vote.”

Tulsa County Election Board Secretary Gwen Freeman added it would require a major overhaul of county budgets and staffing levels to even move back the deadline a few days. 

“It would throw us into a real tailspin,” she said while adding she is opposed to moving the state’s deadline. “We already have tight deadlines and we’re scrambling as it is with big elections like this. We’re working 12-hour days, seven days a week already.”

Adding to the unlikelihood that state officials and lawmakers will make changes to the voter registration deadline in the near future, another Democratic legislator said she is prioritizing other policy changes to boost voter turnout. 

Sen. Julia Kirt, D-Oklahoma City, said she hopes the state’s long-planned online voter registration site will be up and running as soon as possible. And joining the growing number of states that offer automatic voter registration is among her top goals for the coming legislative sessions. 

“Whatever our deadlines, we want our systems to be accessible and straightforward for all eligible voters to have the opportunity to participate,” she said. “Automatic registration is a common-sense update to our registration process that uses modern technology to protect the integrity of our elections while making the process more efficient.”

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