Legislature considers changes to Oklahoma’s voting laws

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The Legislature is currently considering several bills that would change voting laws in Oklahoma. Courtesy News9

The Oklahoma Legislature is considering several bills this session that would change voting laws, including bills that would require voters to show proof of U.S. citizenship, would prevent some individuals from voting for a period of time and others that would make voter registration automatic.

In 2016, Oklahoma had the sixth-lowest percentage of its citizen voting-age population cast a ballot when compared to other states, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

Though around 68 percent of the state’s registered voters cast a ballot in the 2016 presidential election, only 53 percent of citizens who were of voting age went to the polls, the commission’s report found.

During non-presidential election years, voter turnout is typically lower. However, most of Oklahoma’s statewide elections are held during non-presidential election years, including this year when voters will be asked to vote for governor, attorney general, superintendent of education, as well as several statewide ballot proposals in addition to legislative seats.

In 2014, the last year when statewide office elections were held, only about 30 percent of the state’s citizen voting age population cast a ballot, ranking eighth-lowest in the nation, according to the commission’s 2014 report.

The number of registered voters in Oklahoma as of January 2018 declined by nearly 7 percent from the same time last year, according to the latest report by the Oklahoma State Election Board.

However, two bills introduced this session would make voter registration automatic for people who have a driver’s license.

House Bill 2912 by Rep. Mickey Dollens, D-Oklahoma City, and House Bill 3029 by Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman, would both require the State Election Board to develop a system to allow the Department of Public Safety and driver’s license agencies to submit licensing information of eligible voters to the state board, which would send the information to the county election board. The person would then be registered to vote.

Under the bills, the person would have the chance to opt out of being registered or choose a political party to register under.

Neither Virgin nor Dollens returned phone messages from The Frontier seeking comment on the bills. Both bills have been referred to House committees.

However, other bills currently under consideration by the Legislature seek to bar some people from voting, at least for a few years.

House Bill 3285, by Rep. John Enns, R-Enid, would bar individuals who have been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor drug or drug-related crime from voting for a period of five years after their conviction.

Enns said he introduced the legislation in reaction to the passage of State Question 780 by voters in 2016. The ballot initiative lowered most drug possession crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, and has faced backlash from some legislators who have sought to overturn or amend the law, including in bills introduced during this legislative session.

“They need to be of right mind when they go to the ballot box as much as possible,” Rep. John Enns said of people convicted of drug crimes. “Then you’ve got elections that can be thrown one way or the other by people who really have no clue about what’s going on.”

By turning felonies into misdemeanors, State Question 780 also had the effect of allowing people who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to vote because of a felony conviction the ability to continue to cast a ballot, Enns said.

“Since that passed, originally those people were precluded from voting, period, if they were convicted of those offenses,” Enns said. “I think it’s important still if these people are convicted, they should still have a waiting period to vote.

“The reason people aren’t allowed to vote after they’ve been convicted of a felony (drug offense) is because people don’t think they’re in their right mind. Just because it’s been lowered to a misdemeanor doesn’t change the fact they’ve still been around this stuff. So to totally peel that away, to me, is not responsible. This seeks to fix that problem.”

Enns said the bill would help to address elections that might be swayed one way or the other by voters who might be under the influence of drugs when casting a ballot.

“They need to be of right mind when they go to the ballot box as much as possible,” Enns said. “Then you’ve got elections that can be thrown one way or the other by people who really have no clue about what’s going on.”

The bill has been assigned to the House Ethics and Elections Committee.

Meanwhile, House Bill 3341 by Rep. Sean Roberts, R-Hominy, would require that anyone registering to vote, updating their voter registration or showing up at the polls to vote provide a birth certificate, a passport , naturalization documents, or a handful of other documents proving United States citizenship.

Oklahoma voters are already required to show identification, such as a driver’s license, before voting, but the bill would also require that the potential voter provide the additional documents as well before registering to vote and casting a vote at the polling place.

The language in the bills appears to be taken from bills that were introduced in other states several years ago and model legislation recommended in 2008 by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group of corporate officials, lobbyists, and state legislators that craft model legislation to be introduced in state legislatures around the country. However, those bills allowed photo IDs or driver’s licenses as an acceptable form of proof of citizenship, while House Bill 3341 does not.

Roberts did not return phone messages from The Frontier seeking comment on the legislation.

The bill is currently assigned to the House Ethics and Elections committee.

Jan Largent, co-president of the Oklahoma chapter of the League of Women Voters, said the league opposes the bill.

“That restricts voting,” Largent said. “I can tell you unequivocally that the League would not support anything like that because it restricts voting.”

Ryan Kiesel, executive director of ACLU Oklahoma, said both House Bill 3285 and House Bill 3341 would restrict the ability of people who would otherwise be able to vote to cast a ballot.

“Both of these are examples of legislation we see both in Oklahoma and around the country of trying to limit the number of people who can participate in our democracy,” Kiesel said. “This is unique among advanced democracies. Most advanced democracies are trying to enlarge the number of people who are participating in democratic decision making.”

Kiesel said House Bill 3341 is based on the false assumption that there is a large amount of fraudulent voting that occurs in elections, but the effect of such laws restricts the ability of people who are low income, elderly or a person of color to vote.

“Why any lawmaker feels compelled to continue to act upon these lies about fraud in our elections is beyond me. Frankly, it’s delusional,” Kiesel said. “Roberts is either doing this knowing that the narrative he is furthering with legislation like this is false or he has bought into the delusion himself. Either one is unacceptable.”

Last year, President Donald Trump established the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity to look into allegations of widespread voter fraud. However, the commission was dissolved in early January without finding evidence of large-scale fraud. Trump later tweeted that the commission was dissolved because states refused to turn over data, that the voting “system is rigged” and there should be more efforts to establish a voter identification system.

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Clifton Adcock

Senior Staff Writer

A veteran investigative reporter who has covered eastern Oklahoma for more than 15 years, Clifton joined The Frontier in April 2017. A native of southeastern Oklahoma, he has covered numerous issues from criminal justice to politics for publications including the Tulsa World, the Oklahoma Gazette, and Oklahoma Watch. Clifton holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Oklahoma. Clifton can be reached at clifton@readfrontier.com. Follow him on Twitter @cliftonhowze
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