Last week, the coalition and Oklahoma’s election board announced an agreement in which the state committed to asking any person who interacts with welfare agencies whether they want to register to vote and then to helping them through the process. That includes assistance with helping them register online. The state also agreed to establish a new website with information about the National Voter Registration Act.
The scope of the settlement is clearly modest when compared to the fights over voter ID laws, but Jenn Rolnick Borchetta, senior counsel for Demos, praised Oklahoma for agreeing to address what she said was “a disconcerting number of people who should have gotten voter-registration assistance and didn’t get it at all.” Demos and other organizations pursued the case based on statistics showing a disproportionately low number of low-income people who were registered in Oklahoma, which sparked an investigation.
“They were cooperative from the beginning,” Borchetta said of state officials. “We get different responses from different states, and you can’t predict the responses based on the color of the state. It’s often difficult. We often have to file lawsuits, and the fact that we didn’t have to file one here speaks itself volumes about Oklahoma’s willingness to do this.”
Bryan Dean, a spokesman for Oklahoma’s election board, said there was a consensus among the state’s top officials—including Governor Mary Fallin, a Republican—to work with the advocates rather than defend the challenge in court. “There was not a real reason to fight,” he said. “The key thing for us is this agreement isn’t asking us to do anything that goes beyond enforcement of the NVRA.”
“We take the enforcement of this very seriously,” he added. Dean also noted that the plan to which the state has committed “isn’t costing us money.”
The nationwide fight over access to the polls can be divided into two strains: efforts to expand access and make it easier for people to vote, and the battle against laws or policies ostensibly aimed at boosting the “integrity” of elections but which in practice are seen as limiting the vote. As a win for advocates of expanded access, the Oklahoma agreement represents “incremental steps,” said Myrna Pérez, director of the voting rights and elections project for New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. “The Oklahoma case highlights that voter registration in this country leaves a lot to be desired,” Pérez said.
The more controversial efforts are in the 17 states that are considering legislation to enact some form of automatic voter registration, along with other changes that shift voter registration from a pen-and-paper platform to an online system. (Hillary Clinton gave a boost to this push by endorsing automatic, universal voter registration during a speech in June.) Oregon in March became the first state to enact a law to require the state to mail a ballot to any citizen with a driver’s license. Lawmakers in New Jersey passed a similar bill in June, but Governor Chris Christie, a Republican presidential hopeful, has indicated he’s likely to veto the proposal.