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Early numbers show high voter participation

The Journal Record

June 25, 2018

OKLAHOMA CITY – If early voting numbers are any indication, Oklahomans are turning out in droves for this year’s primary election.

In Oklahoma County, early voting and absentee ballot voting nearly doubled over the last gubernatorial election year’s primary participation. In other counties, early and mail voter participation has outpaced the past presidential election’s trends.

Political science professors said several issues are at play. This is one of the most competitive primaries the state has seen in years, as evidenced by the record candidate filing this spring. Hot issues such as education spending and the medical marijuana vote are spurring further engagement across the spectrum. Tensions from the past few legislative sessions linger, drawing even more residents to the polls.

Doug Sanderson is the Oklahoma County Election Board chairman. He said that four years ago, during the last gubernatorial election, about 2,400 people came to vote early in person. This year, that rose to more than 5,200.

“You can see we more than doubled,” he said.

Mail ballots are on the same trajectory. During the 2014 election, the board got about 4,500 completed ballots in the mail. As of Monday morning, it got nearly 8,000. He said that although there is no formula to nail down how those numbers relate to traditional election day turnout, it’s likely the increases will be similar.

“If it’s gone up that much since the last gubernatorial cycle, for whatever reason, there’s more interest, which will probably equate to a larger turnout,” he said.

In Tulsa County, engagement is already seeming to surpass that of the presidential primary, said Election Board Secretary Gwen Freeman. In 2016, about 5,400 residents showed up to vote early in person. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday, about 6,700 did. Received mail ballots jumped from 3,282 in 2016 to 3,358 as of Monday afternoon, and ballots were still coming in.

“We’ve had an incredible increase,” Freeman said. “It’s actually pretty impressive.”

Impressive, but not surprising, she said. From May of last year to May of this year, voter registration increased by 300 percent.

The Noble County Election Board, based in Perry, has seen heavy growth as well. Secretary Pam McBride said that more than 400 people turned out for early voting, and more than 100 people have sent in mail ballots. Considering the area holds about 6,000 registered voters, she said, those early numbers are very high.

“That’s up,” she said. “That was even more than the last presidential election.”

Joy Farell, chief clerk of the Caddo County Election Board, said this primary is outpacing engagement in the presidential year’s primary as well. In 2014, 94 people mailed in ballots. As of Monday morning, they had already received 111. Fewer than 70 people voted early in person in 2014, and 275 did this year.

Jeanette Mendez is the associate dean for research and facilities at Oklahoma State University and a professor in its political science department. She said that the high participation stems from the concerted effort to make the primary competitive.

“It makes it unlike anything we’ve ever seen in an Oklahoma primary,” she said. “Oftentimes, we just kind of ignore primary elections.”

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She said the sheer number of candidates would inherently make the race more competitive. Elections officials said this year that 2018 set a new record for candidacy filings, with 800 residents throwing their hats in the ring. Mendez attributed much of that to the events that unfolded in April, when Oklahoma saw its first statewide teacher walkout in nearly three decades.

“I think the teacher walkout really led to an influx of candidates we weren’t expecting,” she said.

In addition to encouraging candidates, the education movement has sustained itself by urging its supporters to get to the polls. That has been typical for every movement in general elections, but this is one of the first years it has affected primaries to the same extent, she said. That push seems to have shifted the mentality about primary races.

“We can’t get to November without good quality candidates,” she said.

Richard Johnson, a professor of political science for Oklahoma City University, said the teacher walkout was one of two major issues that fostered high engagement this year. The other: medical marijuana.

“I think there are a lot of people who might not normally vote in a primary who will come out for this issue, both sides,” he said.

That is particularly true of the side supporting the issue, he said, because it will likely draw voters who never participate politically.

Those are two of the top factors, but subsidiary issues are also at play. Some districts have garnered several qualified candidates, which will likely pull more voters. There are also a few issues festering from the past few legislative sessions.

He noted that Senate District 40 in north Oklahoma City has drawn several strong candidates. Republican incumbent Dr. Ervin Yen is the Senate Health and Human Services Committee chairman and has garnered much attention over the past few years for his policies regarding vaccinations and medical marijuana. He supports the latter with heavy restrictions. Democratic candidates Danielle Ezell, the former executive director of the Women’s Coalition, and Carri Hicks, a former nonprofit executive and public school teacher, have been battling for the Democratic nomination.

“Turnout is going to be very high in this district,” he said.

Last week, an Oklahoma Supreme Court decision disqualified a petition drive to overturn House Bill 1010, the special session measure that raised several tax rates to generate $450 million. The organization pushing for the referendum, Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite, argued that the state did need to provide teachers a pay raise, but that lawmakers should not have raised taxes to do so. Johnson said that will likely drum up engagement in Republican primaries.

‘The people who were lined up to fight, I think, feel frustrated,” he said. “They may feel the only way they can get anywhere is in the Republican primary.”

Louis Furmanksi, the chairman of University of Central Oklahoma’s political science department, said that he also believed that the teacher walkout and medical marijuana state question were driving up voter participation and that Oklahoma needs that.

“Given our pathetically low turnout in the state, any news is good,” he said. “It’s good to see that voter interest is up. That’s always a healthy sign for any democracy, regardless of what the outcome is.”

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