Twenty-seven percent of Oklahoma’s registered young voters showed up in 2012 presidential elections, the lowest youth turnout in the country, according to The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). In addition, only 43 percent of young people between ages 18–29 are even registered to vote.
That means that less than 12 percent of the voting-age population under 30 voted in 2012.
This low turnout is in contrast to most other states, which in the same year saw higher than average youth voting.
And it’s not just Oklahoma’s youth who are relatively bad at showing up to the polls—Oklahoma has seen some of the worst turnouts across all age groups in recent years. In 2012, the overall turnout was just over 52 percent, the third worst in the nation. In 2014, we had the lowest turnout on the state’s record.
The Oklahoma legislature is considering several pieces of legislation that could substantially increase voter registration and turnout, especially among young voters.
Amongst the proposals authored by Republican Senator David Holt are bills that would allow for online voter registration, extend voter registration, move to a “top-two” primary system and lower the number of signatures required to get candidates on ballots.
Expanded voter registration primarily affects two groups of people: those who have not had very many opportunities to register in the past and those who are likely to move and change addresses. Young people fit into both of these groups.
Media attention increases substantially as election day nears. People often don’t think to register until the voter registration deadline has passed, meaning those who haven’t voted before, have moved or have changed their name may miss their opportunity.
Online registration also particularly appeals to millennials who, let’s be honest, may not even know where their post offices are or where they can buy stamps.
Both the top-two primary system and reduced signature requirements are particularly beneficial to independent voters. Under current Oklahoma law, the Democratic and Republican parties hold separate primaries that only members of the respective parties are allowed to vote in, entirely leaving out half of the millennial electorate that identifies as independent, according to Pew Research Center.
The top-two system holds a general primary in which the two candidates that receive the highest number of votes win—regardless of party affiliation. This means that more young people would be able to vote in primaries.
It is also incredibly difficult to get independent candidates on Oklahoma ballots under current law. A party is defined as a group that either polled 10 percent during the last election or submitted a petition signed by at least 5 percent of the number of votes cast for that office in the last election (for presidential elections, Oklahoma only requires 3 percent). These are the strictest ballot access laws in the country.
Lowering the signature requirements would make it significantly easier to get candidates from smaller parties (or candidates from outside of the major two parties). Again, this is particularly relevant to millennials who identify as independents.
Current state policies clearly reflect Oklahoma politicians’ ambivalence to their youngest constituents, resulting from both low voter turnout and a lack of long-term vision in the political process. Oklahoma ranks second to last in education spending per pupil and has the fourth highest incarceration rate in the nation. Both of these issues are particularly harmful to young people.
These proposed changes in voting policies would boost millennials’ participation in the political process and in turn lead to better, forward-thinking policies across the board.