By David Blatt
“Not Voting is like letting your Grandma pick your clothes out” Michelle Obama
Recently, The Right Strategy Group polling company shared a survey from late September. The finding that grabbed the headline was Republican Kevin Stitt leading Democrat Drew Edmondson by four points in the race for governor. But what caught my attention was the demographic breakdown of the poll’s respondents.
To put it bluntly, younger Oklahomans were almost nonexistent. In the pollster’s weighted survey of likely voters, 18- to 29-year-olds were just 2 percent of respondents, while a full 30 percent were ages 70 and above. By contrast, among Oklahoma’s overall voting-age population, more than one in five are in the 18-29 age range, compared to just one in eight who are over 70.
Perhaps the poll underrepresents young voters. But actual voter turnout from recent elections tells a similar story. In Oklahoma’s 2014 gubernatorial election, voters over age 65 outnumbered voters aged 18-34 by two-to-one, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s voter survey. Among those 18-24, turnout was just 12 percent.
Young adults are deeply affected by the decisions made at the state Capitol and in Congress, from higher education funding to access to health care, criminal sentencing laws, and more. Yet if young people are not voting, we can assume that their priorities and perspectives will not be a major concern for our elected officials.
We have reforms that could help increase turnout among young adults. Thirteen states have adopted voter pre-registration, which allows citizens at the age of 16 to 17 to pre-register and be added to the voter rolls automatically on their 18th birthday. A study of Florida and Hawaii, two of the first states that passed pre-registration laws, found it was successful in increasing youth voter registration, and those who pre-registered turned out to vote at higher rates.
Oklahoma could also address some of the obstacles to voting that affect young voters disproportionately, such as transportation challenges, irregular work schedules, and uncertainty about polling places, by allowing voters to opt for permanent absentee ballots, moving to all-mail elections, or making Election Day a state holiday.
The untapped potential of younger voters is so large that if they start showing up in larger numbers, election outcomes in Oklahoma could change faster than anyone expects. At the least, our elected officials would have to take the concerns of younger adults much more seriously.
David Blatt is executive director of Oklahoma Policy Institute, http://okpolicy.org.