By: Sarah Marshment
In Oklahoma, April 15 doesn’t just mean that it’s time to turn your taxes in: at least, not on odd years like 2019. In the spring of every odd year, Oklahoma does voter list maintenance. This last April, state election officials in Oklahoma removed 88,276 registered voters from the voting rolls. Although this purging is required by law, state election officials offer up an additional justification – voter fraud.
State Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax stated that “[m]aintaining clean and updated voter rolls . . . . protects our democracy by making it far more difficult for someone to use outdated voter lists to attempt to commit fraud or disrupt our elections.” Given the rising levels of concern about the security of our elections, this is a powerful rationale to invoke. However, Mr. Ziriax himself also states that “voter fraud is exceptionally rare in Oklahoma and is not a major issue here.” Mr. Ziriax explains that “this is not a new process, it is not partisan, and no Oklahoma voter is ever removed simply for failing to vote.”
So how does this work? It is a multi-step process. When a registered voter has not voted for four general-election (regular elections for statewide or national elections) cycles over an eight-year period, and fails to respond to an address confirmation notice within sixty days, that voter is listed as inactive. In addition, duplicate registrations are deleted as a part of the voter list maintenance, accounting for an additional 3,030 voter registrations being removed in April. The process is largely automated and has been going on for around twenty-five years. Other reasons for voters being removed from the rolls include death, felony convictions, mental incapacity, written notice, and moving out of state. The nearly 90,000 voters removed from the rolls this year is actually a significantly lower number than in past years. In 2015, 108,347 voters were removed from the rolls, and in 2017, 167,071 voters were removed.
Although Mr. Ziriax claims that “no Oklahoma voter is ever removed simply for failing to vote,” the purging is known as a use-it-or-lose-it provision by congressional democrats. The provision has come under fire recently, as Democrats were disproportionately affected in the 2017 purge. Of the aforementioned 167,011 voters removed from the voting rolls, around 46% were Democrats, which is higher than the approximate 39% Democrats represented in the pool of all registered voters. Critics argue that other states who do not use a use-it-or-lose-it voter maintenance process are able to accurately maintain their voter lists. These states use such measures as statewide mailings to all registered voters, and being a part of an interstate data-sharing system that gathers information about individuals who have moved out of state or who have died.
Oklahoma officials watched closely a Supreme Court decision, Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, last year. The Supreme Courhio’s use-it-or-lose-it law, which is very similar, and determined that it did not violate the National Voting Rights Act. Although the Oklahoma law is controversial and has many critics, it is likely here to stay given its long history and the Supreme Court’s affirmation of its legitimacy.