Children play as their grandmother votes at Millwood High School in Oklahoma City. But many Oklahomans don't cast ballots in elections. (Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images) (This image cannot be republished unless you have a subscription to Getty.)
Oklahoma persistently has one of the lowest rates of voter participation in the country.
Our voter registration is low and our voter turnout is also low — a double whammy.
Of the state’s estimated 3 million eligible voters, roughly one-third are not registered, and another third do not vote regularly. In most elections, more Oklahoma voters stay home than cast a ballot.
Voters stay home because we have been led to believe our voice and our vote do not matter. The message is reaffirmed by the national media focusing on so-called “swing states” like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio while ignoring the rest of the country.
Media didn’t invent this narrative. They are merely describing our political system as it exists today: structurally broken.
Gerrymandering and restrictive voting laws have created districts that can be reliably won cycle after cycle, regardless of how the incumbent performs while in office.
Elections are supposed to be how voters can directly hold politicians accountable, but there is no accountability if they can win without a single vote being cast.
When districts are designed to be uncompetitive, it has a chilling effect on other candidates running. So, those who do run can end up winning by default.
Since many have recently launched their reelection campaigns, it’s a good time to remember that more than half of the members of the Oklahoma state Legislature did not face an opponent in their last election.
No rallies. No debates. They just won because they put their name on the ballot. Elections are supposed to be how voters can directly hold politicians accountable, but there is no accountability if they can win without a single vote being cast.
For the few politicians who do draw a challenger, most of the time it is someone from their own party during the primaries, and when those elections are decided in closed primaries, it means a small minority of voters end up making decisions for the whole country.
But hope is not lost. The solution to the problems facing our democracy is not to tune out, but rather to lean in, to recognize that we have the power to make change and to put that power to work. Oklahomans don’t vote because they’ve been led to believe that their vote doesn’t matter, but now is our chance to set the record straight.
A former legislator once told me that there are two things that matter in politics: money and influence. If you have the money to give, I suggest supporting the candidates you like or nonprofits that work to increase civic participation.
I also encourage you to use your influence, however big or small it may be.
No matter who you are, there are people in your life right now who do not vote regularly.
But, they might — if you help them.
Think about your friends, your family, your coworkers, your neighbors, the people at your church, the other parents at the soccer field, your adult children, maybe even your spouse or partner. Do you know if they’re registered to vote? Have you asked them?
Did you know that Oklahoma has online voter registration now? It’s so easy. Do not underestimate your ability to influence the people around you.
If you’re reading this and are considering running for office, why not take the plunge? Especially if it’s for a position that is frequently uncontested. Remember, we don’t vote anyone out — we can only vote for someone else.
A healthy democracy requires competition, so even if you lose, you’ve done a great public service by creating some accountability in that race.
We are living in a unique point in history, and we should not squander or turn away from our duty to do what is right. The fight for democracy in America is as old as the country itself, and the battles being fought today are just as important as they were in 1776, 1863, 1942, or 1964.
In the words of former President Dwight Eisenhower: “Politics ought to be the part-time profession of every citizen who would protect the rights and privileges of free men.”
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