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State bills to encourage voting fall flat

More than 60 legislative bills have been filed since 2015 that seek to expand or create new options for Oklahomans to vote or register to vote.

But an Oklahoma Watch review of the legislation considered during the past three sessions shows that most didn't even get a committee hearing. All but 10 failed to reach the governor's desk.

Among the survivors, the most potentially significant one  approved in 2015 to allow online voter registration  may not take effect for two to three more years, meaning most voters in the 2018 elections will likely encounter few changes that appreciably improve voter convenience or efficiency.

Proposals to change the voting process have often stemmed from Oklahoma having one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country. The 2015 online registration law was one of the state's most ambitious attempts to boost voter turnout in years.

That effort, however, has stalled.

Little progress has been made toward getting the voter registration website up and running in the last two years. And state officials say it will be at least another two to three years before the online registration system can become a reality.

The delay is being blamed not on funding constraints, but on long-awaited upgrades to the Department of Public Safety's drivers' license computers, which must be able to verify submitted voter registration information from the state Election Board. 

Some lawmakers and voting advocates say a lack of urgency has prevented Oklahoma from joining several other states that moved more aggressively to reduce barriers to voting.

"A lot of legislation gets filed every year, but it always seems to get pushed to the wayside," said Julie Knutson, CEO and president of the Oklahoma Academy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that is focusing on voter engagement issues over the next year. "Some lawmakers might say it's because they think there are bigger fish to fry, but I think others just like how the system already is."

State marked by low turnout

Despite a high-profile presidential race, seven contentious state questions and a host of congressional, legislative and local candidates on the ballot, more than two out of every five eligible Oklahoma voters decided to sit out November's election.

U.S. Census Bureau data shows only five states had worse turnout numbers in the general election than Oklahoma (57 percent). The state ranked 42nd in the percentage (68 percent) of eligible voters who were registered to vote.

Oklahoma's voter turnout numbers were even worse in the past.

Just 34.2 percent of the state's eligible voter population voted in the 2014 midterm elections, which also featured the governor's race and other statewide contests. Although turnout for those is generally lower than during presidential election years, Oklahoma's turnout number was the 49th lowest in the nation that year.

In 2012, Oklahoma's electorate was among the least active, with 52 percent of eligible voters casting ballots and 66 percent of eligible voters registered.

The poor turnout prompted Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, to suggest in 2015 that civil participation in Oklahoma was heading toward "crisis levels."

In response, he spearheaded much of the effort to make voting easier.

Many of his proposals, such as expanding early voting, allowing same-day registration on Election Day and exploring vote-by-mail elections, have failed to gain much traction in the Legislature.

But a few measures have survived. Those include three bills passed this year that would:

nAllow registered voters to change the address on their registration form online. 

nAutomatically apply a registered voter's change of address for an Oklahoma driver's license or other ID to their voter registration if the voter is moving within the same county.

The Lawton Constitution

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