Why Is Oklahoma's Voter Turnout So Low?

Sep 27, 2016

43 states had a higher voter turnout than Oklahoma in the last presidential election in 2012. We wanted to know more about why the state’s voter turnout is so low.

With support from the Kirkpatrick Foundation, KOSU and KGOU are collaborating on a series called Oklahoma Engaged. In the first of several stories, we focus on the state’s changing electorate.

We heard some statistics recently that caused us to take notice: 42% of Oklahomans under the age of 24 are minorities, but 75% of the people that actually go to the polls are white. We checked the census data and it’s true. We wanted to know more about this changing demographic and why they aren’t going to the polls.

So, we picked a neighborhood in south Oklahoma City that’s emblematic of the shift and got in the car.

It’s an interesting neighborhood. There’s the Capitol Hill district that was once the downtown hub of south Oklahoma City — a coffee klatch of old timers still meets there every week. There’s also Southwest 29th Street. In the 1950s, it was known as the car capital of the world because of its vast number of car dealerships. Today, it’s a hub for the growing Hispanic community and is peppered with immigrant-run auto repair shops and taquerias. On the north side of the district, just south of the Oklahoma River, is the new Wheeler Ferris Wheel, a beacon of gentrification.

'Girl' the shop dog keeps watch outside Chris Castaneda's automotive shop in south Oklahoma City.
Credit Emily Wendler / KOSU

It was in the shadow of that Ferris wheel that we met Chris Castaneda at his auto body repair shop.

"Nobody’s gonna listen to the guy that lives over here, the guy that lives in this neighborhood. That’s my opinion. I don’t think they would listen to anything I have to say."

Chris doesn’t vote. He says he doesn’t know anyone in his neighborhood who does.

"What always lies in the back of my head is that it ain’t gonna matter what I say because what I say or what I do even in my vote, really don’t think it’s gonna make a big difference."

He’s not alone.

Jeanette Mendez is a professor and the head of political science at Oklahoma State University. She says there are several predictors of whether or not people will go vote. Education level is a big predictor, but there’s another one, especially in communities with lots of immigrants like the one where Chris lives.

"I think it depends predominantly on if you have a history of voting in your family. Right? So, your social network is and your peers and your family are like number one indicators of if you’re going to vote."

That’s true for Chris. He grew up in the neighborhood and never heard anyone talk about politics or saw his parents go vote. So, we asked him if he was thinking about voting this year.

Rachel: Do you have any idea what’s on the ballot in November?

Chris: No.

Rachel: I mean, clearly you know that Trump is running. What else have you heard?

Chris: That’s it. Just that Trump and that Hillary and the last time I heard. I just kind of watch the news in the morning, and that’s about it.

Mendez, the political science professor, says this is a big problem. Because the information people are getting is limited and they’re unaware of the down ballot races or questions that really affect their communities.

"Most of the media attention we’re getting, even local media attention, really is fixated on the presidential election as if that’s the only election going on."

We wondered if any of the other down ballot races or state questions in this year’s election would change Chris’s mind about whether or not his vote matters. So, we told him a little bit about some of them to see what he thought.

"Well now that you mention it, it does make sense, ya know. ‘Cause that could affect our kids. I never really, really took the time to think about that. It’s not to make up excuses, but I’m just always constantly going non-stop, just working, working, working, so I really don’t take time to think about this."

We’re going to keep following Chris to see if he decides to register to vote or goes to the polls this year.

This is the first in the Oklahoma Engaged series of stories about this year’s elections. In the coming weeks, we’ll bring you more profiles of this neighborhood that are emblematic of Oklahoma’s changing demographics and we’ll break down the seven state questions on the November 8 ballot. We hope you’ll join us on the journey.

Oklahoma Engaged is a collaborative series between KGOU and KOSU, with support from the Kirkpatrick Foundation. You can find more and follow along at OklahomaEngaged.com.