Voters in deep-red Oklahoma weigh Medicaid expansion as virus cases climb

Medicaid expansion supporters in Oklahoma argue the program would bring desperately needed federal support for the state’s long-struggling rural hospitals, which have taken a further hit by a dropoff in elective procedures after the coronavirus emerged. Since 2016, six of the state’s hospitals have closed and another eight have declared bankruptcy.

“We simply can’t afford not to” expand coverage, said Oklahoma House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, a Democrat.

The outcome of the Oklahoma ballot measure will be closely watched in Missouri, where voters on Aug. 4 will also vote on expanding Medicaid in their state. The ballot measure is strongly opposed by Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican facing reelection in November. Organizers of the Missouri ballot measure have similarly focused their messaging on the plight of the state’s hospitals, particularly those in rural areas. Ten hospitals have closed in Missouri since 2014, according to the state’s hospital association.

“It’s about making sure Missourians can access health care in their communities,” said Jack Cardetti, a spokesperson for the group behind the ballot initiative.

Expansion supporters are also watching how Oklahoma’s growing coronavirus infection rates affect voting. The state’s election board is advising — but not requiring — poll workers and voters to wear masks. Mail-in balloting is also broadly allowed, but election law experts said state requirements that they be notarized or come with a copy of government-issued identification could depress turnout, particularly in low-income communities who’d directly benefit from expansion.

“Unless you’re able to fill in the ballot at your kitchen table and put it in the mailbox, anything more than that is going to be more difficult,” said Joseph Anthony, a visiting assistant professor at Oklahoma State University who specializes in elections and voting rights. “All of these things are onerous.”

Jan Largent, the president of the state’s League of Women Voters, said four times the usual number of absentee ballots have been requested for the June 30 vote, when the state’s primary election is also being held.

“People are determined to get out and vote for 802,” she said, referring to the ballot question number.

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