President Joe Biden is urging Congress to resurrect sweeping voting rights legislation that would mandate same-day and online registration and restore voting rights for people convicted of felonies after leaving prison.

A combined version of the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement and Freedom to Vote Acts cleared the House but stalled in the Senate last January. But a Republican legislator from Piedmont wants Oklahoma to be ready to counter what she sees as potential federal interference in the state electoral process.

Rep. Denise Crosswhite Rader sponsored House Bill 1415 to establish a mechanism for Oklahoma to separate state and federal elections should Congress pass certain voting reforms. Last year, she proposed a similar bill that House Democrats termed overly complex and argued could clear the way for the passage of discriminatory voting laws.

The House Elections and Ethics Committee is set to consider the proposal at 3 p.m. today.

Crosswhite Hader points to the same-day voter registration requirement as one concern in the pending federal proposals because it contradicts state election law. Oklahoma sets a voter registration deadline of 25 days before an election day.

“I hate to go that far because I understand the concern of the cost and the time,” said Crosswhite Hader, who was among 39 state lawmakers to sign a letter asking the state's congressional delegation to stop the verification of the Electoral College vote on Jan. 6, 2021 “But I also want to make sure we maintain our autonomy, which to me is as important as what the other repercussions might be.”

If Crosswhite Hader’s so-called trigger bill passes and the federal government passes voting rights legislation, the state attorney general and election board secretary would determine if separating elections is warranted and present a written order to the Legislature for final approval. State elections would likely move to odd-numbered years should the Legislature authorize the request, she said, with voters needing to register separately to participate in state and federal races.

There would also be a notable fiscal impact. It costs between $1.3 million to $1.4 million to hold a statewide election, Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax told lawmakers during a Feb. 7 Senate Judiciary Committee meeting.

The bill appears likely to move forward in the Republican-controlled Legislature, where legislative leaders and Gov. Kevin Stitt have said maintaining secure elections is a priority. An amended version of Crosswhite Hader’s 2022 election separation bill cleared the House on a party-line vote but stalled in the Senate in the final weeks of the session.

States that opt to separate federal and state elections would likely see lower voter turnout and engagement, said Megan Bellamy, vice president of law and policy for the Voting Rights Lab, a nonprofit organization that tracks and analyzes voting-related legislation nationwide.

Oklahoma has historically struggled to attract voters to the polls, ranking last in the nation in voter participation in the 2020 general election. Just over half of registered voters participated in the 2022 midterm election, including just 24% of registered voters 30 and under.

“It’s really set up to create more confusion among voters, who are going to have to navigate what is going to feel like a different process because there are going to be different rules and different requirements for each,” Bellamy said. “It’s also going to have a potentially huge impact on election administrators themselves. They’re already underfunded, understaffed and under a great deal of stress.”

Only New Hampshire has passed a bill allowing for the separation of state and federal elections. Legislation is pending in Texas and Missouri.

Bellamy said states that pass separation laws would likely face legal challenges should they take effect.

“I think it [potential legal challenges] would really be a notion of authority and the state’s rights argument more so than an access point for voters themselves,” Bellamy said. “It would focus more on the implications of who gets to set that standard, federal or state, and would the federal legislation really get in the way of where the state wants to go.”

While not currently outlined in House Bill 1415, Crosswhite Hader said the Legislature would likely need to allocate more money for election officials to make and communicate changes. While acknowledging the potential for voters to grow weary of constant election cycles, she said the Legislature could alleviate that by consolidating certain local election dates. Three Senate Republicans have introduced bills seeking to move school board elections from April to November.

“When you start limiting those, it helps eliminate voter fatigue,” Crosswhite Hader said. “It also helps people be aware that this is when we vote, just like we know that we vote in November for president or governor.”

Oklahoma would not be alone if it opts to move its state elections to odd-numbered years. Five states — Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia — hold elections in odd-numbered years, with the practice dating back to the early-to-mid 1800s in some cases. A 2019 NPR report found voters in these states were likely to skip off-year races, particularly when the governor is not on the ballot.

A related proposal, House Bill 2504 by Mark Lepak, R-Claremore, would require state and county election officials to report within 10 days any federal communication relating to voting or elections to the governor’s office, House speaker and Senate president pro tempore. It would also call for the State Election Board to notify legislative leadership if they intend to disburse federal funds. The bill is on today’s House Elections and Ethics committee 3 p.m. meeting agenda.

Bills must pass out of committee in their chamber by March 2 to continue in the legislative process.

Keaton Ross covers democracy and criminal justice for Epic Text Books. Contact him at (405) 831-9753 or Follow him on Twitter at @_KeatonRoss.

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