Nearly 90,000 people were removed from the voter rolls in Oklahoma this past April. The wording of that sentence is important.
Though it may seem like it is splitting hairs to differentiate between the two, the word “people” is more accurate than “Oklahomans.” That’s because some of those voters removed from the rolls are no longer Oklahomans, as they have moved out the state. In the context of voter registration, many of those individuals are also no longer Oklahomans because they are deceased.
However, it does remain true that many “Oklahomans” were purged from the database of registered voters maintained by the state. Some people see the removal of those records as a nefarious scheme to limit voter participation or otherwise restrict a person’s right to cast a ballot. Though it is mathematically unlikely that the purge of those voters equally impacted both parties, that does not mean the action was undertaken to provide an unfair advantage to either party.
It is difficult to know for sure, as the list of the voters purged isn’t being provided by the state or county election boards. That is a weakness of the 25-year-old law that almost certainly needs to be addressed. There is a process for trying to contact and notify those voters who are in danger of being purged, but it is minimalist, and overall, the process doesn’t allow for political parties, candidates, or third-party groups to assist in the efforts to keep as many Oklahoma citizens registered to vote as possible.
Since the removal of those inactive voters has largely been seen to be to the advantage of the Republican Party, many Democrats get frustrated with one of their own if any defense is provided for the procedure that takes place every other year (side note: I know from personal experience). But there is a justification for making this kind of effort to keep voter rolls from becoming full of the names of people who are no longer alive, moved to other states, or have effectively stopped being voters altogether.
The procedure has rightly been the subject of controversy in states like Ohio and Wisconsin. Only six other states in the country use a process like Oklahoma’s. Many groups advocate congressional action be taken to ban the method of culling the voter rolls. While the process is conceptually defensible, there are other methods used by other states that have proved effective in maintaining accurate, fair voter registration records. And even though Oklahoma’s law has standards that are relatively reasonable in that it can take several election cycles, and up to eight years of a voter's not voting before someone is removed, it is easy to see how easy it could be employed to abuse the law and twist it for the nefarious purposes some already suspect it is.
As with every other proposal, method, and procedure intended to protect the integrity of our elections, it doesn’t take much effort to weaponize them and turn them against the citizenry – to make them tools of disenfranchisement. Oklahoma would do well, despite the apparent reasonableness and equity of its current law, to investigate other options.
I’ve spent multiple columns talking about fairness and equity in our elections. I’m doing it again here because I think it is important for anyone who may be among the nearly 90,000 people who were removed from the rolls last April to rectify the situation. A simple letter sent to the election board’s last recorded address isn’t enough notice. Double-check your registration status with your county election board to be sure you can vote in 2020.
Jason Nichols is District 2 Democratic Party chair, an instructor of political science at Northeastern State University, and former mayor of Tahlequah.