Oklahoma Votes: A review of the 2017 Town Hall and What's Up

The Oklahoma Academy’s 2017 Town Hall “Oklahoma Votes” was held October 15-18 at the Choctaw Resort and Conference Center in Durant. It brought together 104 participants from across the state to discuss access, turnout and informed voter engagement. 

The topic was selected after responses from the Issue Survey (sent to members, chambers, state agencies and the legislature each Spring to gather ideas for the next year’s Town Hall topic) revealed a frustration on the part of many Oklahomans surrounding voting and government representation. 

“So many of the responses that Spring communicated frustration in voting access and that citizen voices are not being heard,” said Julie Knutson, Oklahoma Academy President & CEO.  “There was concern that elected officials only listen to a few of the constituents, that many cannot get to the polls to vote for a variety of reasons, or that Oklahomans are not well-informed on issues facing the state and their communities.”

Knutson said the survey responses also expressed frustration with lower voter turnout and that as a populace we are not getting the best results from our government at the state level. An additional frustration vented in the survey was the reliance of municipalities on sales tax as a sole source of revenue. 

“While a difficult topic in one sense to fit into a Town Hall, the board felt that perhaps it was time to tackle the concerns,” said Knutson.  “We had tackled the State Budget in the  2015 Town Hall, so following with Oklahoma Votes felt like a good fit.”

The Academy works hard to gather as representative a group for the Town Hall as possible. Participants at the Town Hall came from across the state and included eight legislators, 10 university students and representatives from several nonprofits serving minority and underserved populations. 

“The group was fairly diverse,” said Knutson.” We would’ve liked to have had better representation from the NW region of the state and from minority populations.” 

In order to reach more people across the state who would otherwise not be able to participate in the Town Hall, the Oklahoma Academy held a series of listening sessions in every membership region during the Spring and Summer. Nearly 500 (476 to be exact) citizens participated, and their responses were shared with the Town Hall participants.

 “Our goal with the Listening Sessions was to touch as many communities as possible, and importantly, to reach minority populations and the underserved, and we worked specifically to do that,” said Knutson. “This convenience sampling found four significant concerns: the feeling that “my vote doesn’t matter,” the difficulty of transportation to polling places, confusing wording in State Questions, and a shortage of unbiased, non-partisan information about candidates and issues.”

With the data from the listening sessions and the Background Resource Document in hand, Town Hall participants  were well prepared to spend two full days in their panels discussing the topic and formulating consensus-driven recommendations. A final plenary session Wednesday morning brought all the Town Hall participants together to amend and ratify the final report - a full length document summarizing the discussions and recommendations from the five panels’ discussions that took place the previous two days. 

The results from the Town Hall aligned with the feedback from the listening sessions, demonstrating broad citizen support for the recommendations, which include: improving turnout with a State Election Board media campaign communicating the importance of voting, adding more early voting sites, addressing deterrents (such as notarization) with online and mail-in voting,  addressing the shortage of poll workers by encouraging the general public to get trained and volunteer and encouraging employers to support and incentivize employees to do so. Town Hall participants in all panels demonstrated support for the Top Two primary system and spent considerable time discussing SQ 640, recommending it be revisited and changed to a 60% passage by the legislature as we have with our school bond elections. Finally, to improve informed voter engagement, Town Hall participants recommend Civics Education be required in grades K-12.

The findings and recommendations will be officially released on February 6th at a press conference at 1:30pm in the Blue Room of the State Capitol as part of the Oklahoma Academy’s day of Advocacy. In the meantime, the final document is being edited for readability and final packaging, and many of the attending legislators are working to incorporate recommendations into legislation for the 2018 legislative session.

Please make plans to attend the press conference releasing the Town Hall findings and the Legislators’ Welcome Reception on February 6 as part of our Day of Advocacy. The Action Alert will start in February with the beginning of the Legislative Session.  The Action Alert is sent to all Academy members informing them of Town Hall recommendations within pieces of legislation, and keeping them abreast of how those pieces of legislation are moving through the legislative process.  We encourage you to be proactive and communicate with your elected officials through email, phone, mail or in person to support these recommendations and the legislation that may contain them. 

Jennifer Engleman | Nov 16, 2017