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Seven years in the making, Oklahoma online voter registration remains a work in progress

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Whitney Bryen
/
Oklahoma Watch
Voters are seen casting their ballots for the primary election at the St. James AME Church in Arcadia on June 28, 2022.

When Oklahoma lawmakers passed a bill in 2015 authorizing online voter registration, most viewed the measure as a modern solution to boost the state’s persistently low voter participation rate.

“I believe the strong vote for a secure online registration system represents a landmark for election reform in this state,” said former state Sen. David Holt, Senate Bill 313’s sponsor, in a statement after the proposal cleared the Senate.

Holt, now the mayor of Oklahoma City, told the Tulsa World in October 2015 that he was hopeful online registration would launch ahead of the 2016 presidential election. At that point, 24 states and the District of Columbia allowed prospective voters to register virtually.

Nearly seven years later, the state’s online registration platform remains a work in progress.

The delay has caused Oklahoma to lag behind nationally. Forty states now offer online voter registration, with full implementation taking between one and three years on average, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Phase one of Oklahoma’s online registration portal rolled out in September 2018, allowing already registered voters to virtually update their party affiliation and address within the same county. New voters may fill out an application online, but they’re required to print the form, sign it and deliver it to their county election board in person or via mail.

State Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax said the online registration system is nearing completion, though it remains uncertain if the platform will be ready to launch this year.

“We continue to work with OMES and the Department of Public Safety and remain hopeful that online voter registration could launch in time for the November General Election,” Ziriax, the state’s top election official, said in a statement. “However, this is dependent upon technical issues that are outside the control of the State Election Board.”

State law requires online registration applications to be cross-referenced with an Oklahoma driver’s license or other state-issued identification. The Department of Public Safety has worked for years to update its computer system to allow for this process, but technical issues have consistently pushed back the estimated completion date.

A Department of Public Safety spokesperson did not return phone calls and an email seeking comment on the technical issues.

Sen. Julia Kirt, D-Oklahoma City, filed legislation in 2020 that would have required the state to launch a secure online registration system by March 2021. The bill narrowly cleared the Senate Rules Committee but later stalled.

Kirt said she plans to file similar legislation next session if the delay continues into 2023.

“I understand that it’s hard to make everything a priority, but how do we move it up if it doesn’t have a deadline?” She said. “Since the beginning, they’ve said money isn’t really the issue. If money’s not the issue, then it’s about having and taking the time to do it.”

If technical issues persist, Kirt said Oklahoma may need to abandon its plan to cross-check state identification cards and adopt an alternative verification method. Some states, including Minnesota, verify voter registration forms with the applicant’s social security number.

“People already have to show their ID when they vote or get it notarized if they’re doing absentee, so we have a verification process on the back end,” Kirt said. “I don’t see why we need to have extra burdens on the front end.”

How Oklahoma could benefit

Turnout in last month’s primary election dropped substantially compared to June 2018, when the medical marijuana state question drew widespread public interest. Approximately 33% of Republicans and 24% of Democrats cast a ballot, state election board data shows.

As of June 30, there were 2,252,101 registered voters statewide, up marginally from 2,218,374 on Jan. 15.

Kansas saw voter application transactions double in the weeks after it implemented online registration in 2009.

California saved $2 million in administrative costs in 2012 after rolling out its online registration system, quickly recouping the money it spent to build the platform.

A 2015 study from the Pew Research Center found that states with online registration systems enjoy elevated turnout and reduced administrative costs. Voter access advocates are hopeful that Oklahoma, which had the nation’s lowest overall voter participation in the 2020 election, will soon reap similar benefits.

“If we want to maintain a good, strong democracy, we need to make it easier for people to get registered and get to the polls,” said Stephanie Henson, vice president of the League of Women Voters of Oklahoma. “In Oklahoma, we have said we want online registration, so this is just a matter of following through and getting it done.”

With the Nov. 8 general election date less than four months away, Henson said public outreach will be critical whether or not online registration launches. The League of Women’s Voters recently launched a “grab your future by the ballot” informational campaign geared toward young voters.

“Even though I think online voting is helpful and it’s a good faith king of thing, it’s secondary to the importance of connection and community and emphasizing that we want to see you there and hear your voice,” she said.

Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.

Oklahoma Watch is a non-profit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state. Oklahoma Watch is non-partisan and strives to be balanced, fair, accurate and comprehensive. The reporting project collaborates on occasion with other news outlets. Topics of particular interest include poverty, education, health care, the young and the old, and the disadvantaged.
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