Why 21,000 Oklahoma citizens face significant barriers to the ballot
Oklahoma’s Hispanic population increased by 42% since the 2020 census, making it the state’s fastest-growing demographic. Yet 21,000 Spanish-speaking Oklahoma citizens will be required to cast ballots in a language they don’t fully understand next month.
One-third of them live in Oklahoma County, where the GOP recently ramped up efforts to attract Latino voters.
The obstacle to changing that: A 2010 state question — approved by 75% of voters — amending the constitution to make English the official state language.
An exception granted by federal law explains why Texas County in the Panhandle is the only political jurisdiction in the state to publish voting registration forms and ballots in Spanish.
By the 2016 elections, 5% of Texas County’s voting-age citizens were “unable to understand English adequately enough to participate in the electoral process,” activating a provision of the Voting Rights Act requiring the provisions of voter registration forms and ballots in Spanish and bilingual poll workers in every precinct.
Using 2020 census data, that projects to 608 voting-age citizens who gained access to voting materials in their native language. That number could be greater considering racial and ethnic minorities suffer from significant undercounts, according to the Census Bureau.
About 7,500 eligible voters in Oklahoma County haven’t. That’s because the county falls short of a separate Voting Rights Act qualification — 10,000 voting-age citizens who only speak a language other than English.
Fred Mendoza, a Latino community leader who helped the GOP find the Capitol Hill location for its Hispanic community center, said Oklahoma is overdue for Spanish-speaking voting materials statewide.
“It’s just good practical sense for both parties and that is to reach out to the electorate and make it easier for any individual to vote, regardless of their demographic” Mendoza said. “I think it needs to be done.”
Voters in states, like Texas, Florida and California, have access to voting materials in Spanish statewide because they meet the population thresholds. In Kansas, where six counties meet the qualifications, voters living outside those jurisdictions can cross-reference their English registration forms with Spanish equivalents provided on the Secretary of State’s website but can only submit the English versions.
The Republican supermajority in Oklahoma’s Legislature led a 2021 redistricting process that split the state’s largest Hispanic community into three congressional districts. A year later, the party is revving up its engagement in largely Hispanic and historically blue south Oklahoma City.
Gov. Kevin Stitt is running an ad in Spanish on social media. Local legislative candidates are translating campaign pamphlets. And in July, the Republican National Committee opened its Hispanic community center in Capitol Hill.
“We saw a shift in the Hispanic vote in 2020. We realized that Hispanic values mirror the Republican values of faith, family and opportunity,” said Alex Kuehler, a spokesperson for the Republican National Committee.
In 2020, 38% of Hispanic voters nationwide cast their ballots for Donald Trump — a 10-point increase over 2016 — compared to the 59% of those who voted for Joe Biden, according to a Pew research study. A New York Times/Sienna College poll conducted in July shows the gap narrowing for the 2022 midterm elections, with 41% of respondents leaning left, 38% leaning right and 21% remaining undecided.
Kuehler said the community center is one of more than 30 that have opened around the country this year. Besides being a place where campaign volunteers can make calls and go on door-knocking or voter registration runs, he said it will host faith nights, game and movie nights, potluck dinners and campaign forums.
But those efforts are focused more on outreach than access.
Camillo "Cam" Ulloa directs the day-to-day activities at the community center. He clarifies the stances of local Republican candidates, provides a citizenship test preparation course and gives step-by-step explanations of the voter registration form in Spanish to those who need it.
Ulloa said a lack of translated information from the government and local candidates in both parties fuels an attitude of apathy towards civic life among Hispanics. For limited English speakers, he said, filling out forms with official-sounding language can easily become a chore.
“In the Hispanic community, it’s like, ‘I have to take care of my grandkids and I’d rather not take the time to register,’” Ulloa said, “Or they have kids who are in school or working and they are like, ‘I don’t want to fill out a form that’s probably in English and I don’t even know why the local judge or commissioner is running.”
Some people who have come to the center have asked what primaries and run-offs are, and what the role is of government positions like county commissioner and state superintendent. Others have asked for help registering as Democrats, Ulloa said, admitting he helps them too.
Two Oklahoma City metro area candidates for the State House said they would support providing voting materials in languages other than English. Gloria Banister is a Republican running for House District 87 in northwest Oklahoma City. Her district is 27% Hispanic, and Banister said Vietnamese Oklahomans would also benefit.
“While you’re able to speak English, that doesn’t mean you know how to read and write it very well,” Banister said. “That’s what I’ve run into, and that’s why I think there is a need for translation,” she said.
Annie Menz, a Democrat running for House District 45 in east Norman, is bidding to become the first Latina elected to Oklahoma’s House of Representatives. She said she would support measures to translate voting materials.
“Almost every time I go out, I’ll have Hispanic surnames on these lists. These are registered Democrats, they were engaged enough to register as Democrats, but they haven’t really been voting,” said Menz, founder of Hispanic Cultural Day at the Capitol and a former legislative assistant for state Sen. Michael Brooks, D-Oklahoma City.
“And I show up to their doorstep and I speak Spanish to them and I can see it. I can see them get excited about voting again.”
Keaton Ross contributed to this story.
Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.