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Capitol Insider: June 30 Oklahoma Primary Election Primer

State of Oklahoma
Oklahoma State Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax

Oklahoma voters go to the polls on June 30 under some new rules and recommendations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. KGOU's Dick Pryor and eCapitol's Shawn Ashley talk to Oklahoma State Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax about absentee voting and what to expect on election day for the Oklahoma Primary Election in this Capitol Insider segment - part of the Oklahoma Engaged 2020 election project.


Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider, your weekly look inside Oklahoma politics, policy and government. I'm Dick Pryor with eCapitol news director Shawn Ashley, and our guest is Paul Ziriax, secretary of the Oklahoma State Election Board. He is the chief state election official. And welcome, Paul, thanks for joining us.

Paul Ziriax: Thank you. I'm a regular downloader, and it's a thrill to be on the podcast today.

Dick Pryor: Always good to visit with you.

Shawn Ashley: Secretary Ziriax, the statewide Oklahoma Primary Election is coming up June 30th. Absentee ballots for that election are already being cast. But in this election, the absentee ballot, voter verification is changed. Tell us about that.

Paul Ziriax: Sure. And I do want to clarify one thing. The deadline to request an absentee ballot for the June 30th election is Tuesday, June 23rd at 5:00 p.m. I do believe that absentee voting by mail is a convenient option for voters in Oklahoma. No excuse is required to vote a standard absentee ballot. I also believe that in Oklahoma, it's a secure way to vote. We have chain of custody and affidavit verification requirements that help ensure that the person to whom a ballot is issued is the same person who votes it.

And, you know, typically a standard absentee ballot affidavit is verified through notarization and physically incapacitated and caretaker affidavits are verified through witnesses. But during the COVID-19 state of emergency, instead of having it notarized or witnessed, a voter can verify their affidavit by including a copy of their ID with the affidavit. And that would be a valid state federal tribal-issued photo ID or free voter ID card issued by your county election board.

Shawn Ashley: How much is the interest increased for mailing absentee ballots for this upcoming election?

Paul Ziriax: I think it depends on the county. But I know in the metropolitan counties, they reported to me a significantly higher number of requests for absentee ballots for this primary than even for the one two years ago. And I'm sure a lot of that is driven by the fact that State Question 802 on Medicaid expansion is on the ballot.

But there are plenty of ways to vote for this election. You asked about absentee. But keep in mind, we will have in-person voting at your polling place on Election Day, Tuesday, June 30th. There will be early voting, which is officially known as in-person absentee voting at your county election board on June 25th, 26th and 27th.  Of course, voting absentee by mail is also an option. But if you plan to vote by mail, I would encourage you to get that request in as quickly as possible. Vote your ballot and turn around to make sure that it gets processed.

Dick Pryor: As a practical matter, do you have the staff to handle the expected volume of those absentee ballots?

Paul Ziriax: Our county election boards are working hard at that already. The legislature provided some additional help for them. For example, the county election boards, instead of reviewing every single absentee ballot affidavit themselves, can appoint a special absentee voting board to assist them with that. And ultimately, our county election boards are making sure that that they are having meetings on a regular basis to make sure that those are being processed as they come in to stay ahead of the game.

Shawn Ashley: You mentioned the notary requirement and the ID requirement for mail-in absentee ballots. Why are those requirements needed?

Paul Ziriax: Well, Oklahoma, unfortunately, has a history of absentee ballot fraud. And over the years, certainly after the major scandal in Waggoner County in the 1950s and several subsequent ones, the Oklahoma state legislature has put in a  number of security requirements - everything from making sure that only a voter who's issued a ballot can return that voted ballot to the election officials and also verifying the affidavit. But it really just helps to ensure that the person to whom that ballot was issued is the one who's voting it and signing it.

There's a lot of help out there if someone wants to get it notarized or needs help getting a copy. Financial institutions have stepped up, banks and credit unions all over the state. I know libraries, businesses, other organizations are offering notarization services, even at your bank or credit union to voters who are not a customer, as well as making free copies of IDs. And we have a list on our website, elections.ok.gov, of all the financial institutions and other organizations that are offering those absentee voter services. So, I would check this out at elections.ok.gov for more information.

Dick Pryor: How will in-person voting be different this year due to COVID-19 and safety concerns for voters and poll workers?

Paul Ziriax: I would encourage everyone, if you have questions or want more information to go to the State Election Board home page. And again, our website is elections.ok.gov. And right at the top of the home page, we have a link called COVID-19 and 2020 elections. And it includes a lot of information about what is being done and why.

What's different about elections? One thing in particular is that the State Election Board staff worked with personnel from the OU Health Sciences Center to develop social distancing and disinfection protocols for in-person voting. We have also purchased a significant amount of personal protective equipment for all the poll workers in the state. We have sufficient hand sanitizer, not just for poll workers, but for voters.

And, we are encouraging voters when they go vote in person to wear masks per the CDC recommendations. Not mandatory, but it certainly would be helpful for you and those around you if you would wear a mask when you vote in person. And that's either at your polling place on Election Day or during the early voting process.

Shawn Ashley: Do those kind of health concerns make mail-in absentee and early in-person absentee voting even more important this year?

Paul Ziriax: I think we have a good plan in place to help protect the safety of poll workers and voters who wish to vote in person. But I am glad that Oklahoma has a means to vote by mail and it doesn't require an excuse and that the legislature has provided more options than just the standard notarization. Being able to provide a copy of your ID as a verification helps keep the security in place for that election, but also makes it easier on individual voters. So, and the fact that a number of banks, credit unions, libraries and other organizations have stepped up to help provide those services will also help, as well.

Dick Pryor: In addition to elective office there is a major state question on the ballot that would put Medicaid expansion in the state Constitution. What kind of turnout do you expect for the Primary Election?

Paul Ziriax: I think just as we saw two years ago in the state primary when there was a state question on medical marijuana, I think you will see higher than typical turnout for a primary. I don't know how big yet, but I anticipate it'll be good turnout. And keep in mind, you've got State Question 802. There are also local elections, whether they are municipal or school or county elections that were originally scheduled on April 7th that have been postponed, and that will be on the ballot on June 30th, as well as the regular state and county primary elections across the state.

And I think this is probably a good time to mention Oklahoma has a modified closed primary system, which means you have to vote for the primary as the same party as your register. So, Republicans vote in the Republican primary. Democrats in the Democratic primary. But Democrats do allow independent voters to vote in their primary elections. So, if you're a registered Independent, you will be able to vote in that. But keep in mind, with the state question on the ballot, there's something for every registered voter in Oklahoma. So, I'm hoping that everyone who's eligible has gotten registered and will turn out on June 30th.

Shawn Ashley: The notary and ID requirements for the Primary Election have already been set because Oklahoma is in a state of emergency related to COVID-19. But that may not be the case for the next elections in August and November. When will we know the requirements for those elections and how do you plan to communicate that to voters?

Paul Ziriax: Well, what the new law requires is the option to provide the ID is an option if a state of emergency issued by the governor for COVID-19 is in effect 45 days or fewer before that election. So, for the August primary, we'll know, I think, on July 11. And what we will do is make sure that information is posted on our website. We'll share it on our social media, on Twitter and Facebook. And there will be a notification that will be included to every voter who requests an absentee ballot. Just as we did for the primary election, the county election boards will include information on that alternative if it's in effect for the August or November elections.

Dick Pryor: Oklahoma State Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax, thanks for the information.

Paul Ziriax: It's a pleasure to be with you. Thank you.

Dick Pryor: And that's Capitol Insider. If you have questions e-mail us at news@kgou.org or contact us on Twitter @kgounews. You can also find us online at kgou.org or ecapitol.net. Until next time, with Shawn Ashley, I'm Dick Pryor.

Dick Pryor has more than 25 years of experience in public service media, having previously served as deputy director, managing editor, news manager, news anchor and host for OETA, Oklahoma’s statewide public TV network. He was named general manager of KGOU Radio in November, 2016.
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