Advocates Praise Oklahoma’s Progress Adding Thousands of Voters to Rolls During Three-Year Settlement
NEW YORK, WASHINGTON and OKLAHOMA CITY – Voting rights advocates are praising important progress in registering low-income people to vote through Oklahoma public assistance agencies in the wake of a settlement agreement that came to a formal close on November 30. The agreement, in effect since 2015, was the result of outreach to state officials by the Metropolitan Tulsa Urban League, the League of Women Voters of Oklahoma and Metropolitan Tulsa, and YWCA Tulsa, under the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA), a federal law requiring state public assistance agencies to offer voter registration opportunities to clients.
Based on data reported by the state, over the course of three years the average number of monthly voter registrations from the agencies has tripled – from less than 500 per month to almost 1,500 per month – adding more than 34,000 voters to the rolls since 2015.
“Oklahoma has tripled the numbers of people registering through public assistance agencies since 2015. The state should be commended for its impressive commitment to our shared American value that every eligible voter should be able to vote come Election Day,” said Brenda Wright, Senior Advisor for Legal Strategies at Demos, and a lawyer for the community organizations. “By implementing a comprehensive plan for voter registration services at these agencies across the state, Oklahoma has exemplified the NVRA’s principle and promise: States must do their part to bring all Americans into our democracy. We very much hope this commitment will be continued into the future,” Wright added.
“Our ultimate goal is to ensure that voting is accessible to all citizens, and that we are able to eliminate as many barriers to voter registration as possible. This agreement has enabled tens of thousands of voters to have a voice in elections who might not have been represented otherwise,” said Julie Davis, Chief Executive Officer of YWCA Tulsa.
The agreement was between the community groups and the State of Oklahoma, the Oklahoma State Election Board, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, the Oklahoma State Department of Health, and the Oklahoma Health Care Authority. It was prompted by a letter from the community groups to Paul Ziriax, Secretary of the Oklahoma State Elections Board, pointing out that the number of voter registration applications reported statewide by Oklahoma public assistance agencies had dropped by 81 percent since the initial implementation of the NVRA in 1995. At the same time, the average monthly participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, just one of the programs covered by the NVRA, had nearly doubled. In fieldwork investigations conducted at Oklahoma public assistance agencies on behalf of the community groups in 2014, a significant percentage of agency clients interviewed said that they received no voter registration services whatsoever when, under the NVRA, they should have.
The 2015 agreement between the community groups and the state officials included provisions for ensuring that agency staff follow the procedures required by the NVRA; assignment of a staff member at each office to coordinate responsibility for voter registration; collecting and reporting data to track the numbers of voter registrations being collected; and other measures.
“In an era in which many politicians are making it harder and harder to participate in the democratic process, this victory is heartening”, said Brady Henderson, former Legal Director for the ACLU. “This effort represents the most successful push in recent memory toward increasing the number of Oklahomans who are able to cast their ballot and fully participate in this crucial aspect of our democracy.”
“The success of this settlement demonstrates conclusively how beneficial voting laws produce concrete results,” said Ezra Rosenberg, Co-Director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “As a result of this settlement, and Oklahoma’s compliance with its terms, thousands of people who otherwise would not have registered to vote, predominantly lower income Oklahomans, are now registered and can freely participate in our democracy.”
The community groups were represented by civil rights organizations Demos, the ACLU of Oklahoma, Project Vote, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.