Nearly five years after the Legislature authorized the Oklahoma Election Board to launch an online voter registration system, the work remains unfinished.
Election officials told Oklahoma Watch this week that a full online voter registration platform will not be ready this year, including for November’s pivotal presidential election.
The state launched an online tool two years ago that allows registered voters to update their information. But development of a similar platform to register new voters online has been delayed repeatedly since the 2015 authorizing legislation was passed.
In September 2018, election officials said they were hopeful the system would be ready for the 2020 elections. But that won’t be the case.
The news is a blow to voter-access advocates who argue that offering online registration is one of the top ways to improve the state’s traditionally low voter turnout. They say Oklahoma will lag the 37 other states that offer this option.
The problem isn’t just about the cost.
State Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax said election officials are waiting for the Department of Public Safety to complete computer upgrades that would allow online voter registrations to be cross-referenced with applicants’ driver’s licenses or state-issued ID cards.
That work, which is related to the state’s long-running efforts to comply with the federal REAL ID Act, is expected to be completed this year. If that occurs, Ziriax said, there should be enough money already budgeted to launch the online voter registration by the end of 2021.
“As Oklahoma’s chief election official, I strongly support online voter registration,” he said. “However, online voter registration should only launch when it is both technically feasible and secure, and not before.”
That timetable is not good enough for at least one lawmaker.
Sen. Julia Kirt, D-Oklahoma City, recently filed a bill that requires the Election Board to establish a secure online voter registration website by March 1, 2021.
Kirt said it’s her hope that the legislation will create a greater sense of urgency for the Department of Public Safety and the Election Board to get the work done – or it could push the state to look at new options.
“From the beginning the (Election Board) was marrying their system to the Department of Public Safety system, and clearly that is behind schedule,” she said. “My concern is that if that’s an ongoing problem, maybe there should be another system for authenticating identification.”
Kirt said she chose March 1, 2021, because it would ensure the website is up for local elections that year and for the run-up to 2022, when statewide races will include the governor’s office.
“I think clearly we don’t have enough people voting in our state,” she said. “We don’t have eligible voters voting. We don’t have people registering at the rate we need to and we need more people patriating. We need to build trust in government and people having a voice is part of that.”
Ziriax said he has concerns about the bill and called the deadline “not realistic.” However, he said, the bill is “well-intended and can easily be amended by the Legislature with a more feasible deadline that is contingent on successful testing for security and functionality.”
Kirt said she’s not ready to start negotiating the bill language, but she’s willing to see how her fellow lawmakers feel about it.
The bigger challenge could be getting the bill heard in committee.
Kirt said she’s been notified by Republican leaders that the bill will be assigned to the Senate Rules Committee, where many bills die without a vote because of the volume of work the committee usually sees.
A 2017 analysis by Oklahoma Watch found that of the 60 bills introduced since 2015 that sought to expand or create new options for voting or registering to vote, most didn’t even get a committee hearing. All but 10 failed to reach the governor’s desk.
Since then, few voting-related bills have seen much traction in the Legislature.
Among the unsuccessful proposals in the last two years were creating automatic voter registration, making it easier for felons to have their voting rights restored, allowing 16-year-olds to preregister to vote and expanding early voting hours.