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Capitol Insider: Oklahoma Voting Process Explained

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Mail-in absentee voting has already begun in Oklahoma's 2020 General Election. In this Oklahoma Engaged segment of Capitol Insider, State Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax discusses the procedures for voters to follow to make sure their votes count amid the coronavirus pandemic with KGOU's Dick Pryor and eCapitol's Shawn Ashley. 

TRANSCRIPT:

Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider, your weekly look inside Oklahoma politics, policy, government and, of course, elections. I'm Dick Pryor with eCapitol news director, Shawn Ashley. Our guest is State Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax. It's good to have you with us again, Paul.

Paul Ziriax: Thanks, Dick. Thanks, Shawn. It's great to be with you again.

Dick Pryor: Well, first things first. What's the deadline to register to vote to participate in this year's general election?

Paul Ziriax: That is a great question. It's one we get often these days and there's still plenty of time. The deadline to register to vote or to update your voter registration for the general election is Friday, October ninth. And that deadline means that the county election board either needs to be in possession of your voter registration application or a voter registration would need to be in possession of it if you're doing it in person. If you plan to mail it, it only needs to be postmarked by that day. But if you're waiting until the last minute, make sure that the post office is postmarking that before you mail a voter registration application.

Shawn Ashley: All voting in the 2020 general election is already beginning in Oklahoma with mail-in absentee ballots. This method has become especially important this year because of the coronavirus, which continues at high rates in the state. What do voters need to do to get an absentee ballot?

Paul Ziriax: Well, whether you want to register to vote or whether you want to request an absentee ballot, we have some easy functionality on the State Election Board website. If you go to our website to fill out a voter registration application online and then print it, sign it and send it to your county election board it's very easy to do. You just use the voter registration wizard if you want to request an absentee ballot.

You can go again to our website – and that's elections.ok.gov. Go to the OK Voter Portal. And using the portal, you can do a lot of different things. But one of the things that you're able to do is request an absentee ballot and get that sent to you. If you want to do it the old-fashioned way, you can contact your county election board and they would be happy to send you one. I do want to mention that although the deadline to request an absentee ballot is one week prior to the election, which is October 27th, we don't recommend waiting until the last minute. You know, you want to make sure that there's plenty of time for the county election board to process your request to send you that absentee ballot by mail and then for you to return it. So, if you're thinking of doing so, request that as early as possible.

Shawn Ashley: After requesting a ballot, how long should people expect to wait before they receive it?

Paul Ziriax: Well, it depends. I will say that we are already close to double the previous record for requests for absentee ballots. In the 2018 general election there were a little more than 120,000 absentee ballots requested for that election. As of the time of this recording, we're already at 237,000 requests, almost double the previous record. So, it'll take a little time. But I can tell you that most county election boards right now, especially the ones with larger populations, are working 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week, to make sure that all of the voter registrations and absentee ballot requests are being processed in a timely fashion.

Dick Pryor: Paul, there is a way for people to check the progress of their ballot. If the ballot has been mailed, but you have not received it after several days what should voters do? Is there anything to do to follow up?

Paul Ziriax: Well, I mentioned the OK Voter Portal earlier. And again, that's available at elections.ok.gov. One of the features in that is the ability to track the status of your absentee ballot. You can see when the county election board sent it to you. You can see when they received it. And you can check back after the election to make sure it was counted. I do want to mention, though, Dick, early on sometimes that “sent date” is not always the date it gets put in the mail. It's usually tied to the date that the county election board prints your mailing label that will go on. But in the larger counties - Oklahoma, Tulsa, Cleveland - they're dealing with tens of thousands of absentee ballots that are going to go out in their first mailing. And they're doing them in batches. So, while absentee ballots in most counties are already starting to be mailed to voters, your “sent date” may not be the day it was dropped in the mail. It's the date that they printed your label. But don't be concerned about that because it'll get to you. But, if you have any questions, you can contact your county election board directly.

Shawn Ashley: We've talked about voter registration. We've talked about requesting an absentee ballot. There's also in-person early voting. When and where does that take place?

Paul Ziriax: Well, under state law, voters are allowed to cast votes on the Thursday, Friday and Saturday before a state or federal election. So that'll be the case this year. It's October 29th, 30th and 31st. The hours are 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. on the Thursday and Friday, and then from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. on the Saturday prior to the election. And that is typically at your county election board office. But I know that some counties will have secondary sites available and other counties if they don't believe that their county election board office has sufficient space, they will move it to a different location. For example, Cleveland County, Dick, where you're registered to vote, the Cleveland County Election Board actually has their normal and early voting site at the fairgrounds, which is near their county election board office. But it's a much larger location that will allow them to have more people, more social distancing and be able to conduct voting more safely. You can check the state election board website. Again, go to elections.ok.gov. Go to the early voting section. And when we get a little closer to that time, we will actually have a list of all of the early voting locations across the state, but you need to go to the early voting site that is in the county where you're registered to vote.

Dick Pryor: There is an effort this year to encourage people to have a voting plan. What should voters plan for on Election Day, November 3rd?

Paul Ziriax: Well, we've talked for a number of years in our office about making a plan to vote. And that's a pretty simple idea that's been around for a while. And it's the idea that if you know when you're going to vote, such as what day, what time of day you plan to vote, how you're going to get to the polls, how much time you're allotting to spend there, you're more likely to follow through and vote. So that's something that I recommend every voter do - decide whether you want to vote by mail, absentee or vote during the in-person absentee or early voting period or vote on Election Day.

But we have worked with the OU Health Sciences Center to develop safety protocols for in-person voting. And you can actually go to our website, elections.ok.gov, and we have a special COVID-19 page, and you can learn all about those safety protocols. They include such things as social distancing, disinfection procedures, PPE for poll workers, and a very strong recommendation from me as the secretary of the State Election Board that all voters wear a mask to the poll. It's not mandatory. Nobody's going to turn you away for failing to wear a mask as a voter. But as the State Election Board secretary, I strongly recommend you do so because it's a great way not just to protect yourself, but also make sure you're protecting those poll workers that are working and the voters around you.

Shawn Ashley: Paul, when are mail-in votes counted, and when should Oklahoma expect to see results from the general election?

Paul Ziriax: Well, there's a little bit of a difference between processing and counting. You know, there's no vote that's officially tabulated or unofficially tabulated until polls are closed on election night. But mail absentee ballots typically are by law, are scanned on Election Day and the affidavits can be reviewed on the Thursday prior to Election Day. But with the permission of the State Election Board secretary, that process can start earlier. And I have granted blanket permission as the State Election Board secretary to every county election board to have early meetings if they need to start those things earlier. They just have to notify my office of when those meetings will be to begin processing absentee ballots. So, there are already counties that are beginning to hold meetings to do that.

You know, Oklahoma, we pride ourselves on being able to have every vote counted on election night. Now, there will be a lot, a lot more mail-in absentee ballots this time than we've had in the past. So, it may be a little bit later in the evening before we have all the absentee ballots cast, maybe even the wee hours the next day, but the good thing is in Oklahoma, we will have everything counted on election night, although keep in mind, election night might spill over into the wee hours of the next morning, just given the volume of last minute absentee ballots that could be coming up, showing up on Election Day and would need to be counted.

Shawn Ashley: More than fifteen other states permit mail-in ballots mailed on or before Election Day to be counted after November 3rd, including in battleground states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. When do you think we'll know the results nationally of the presidential election?

Paul Ziriax: You know, I can't predict what other states will look like. I know that in Oklahoma, as I said, I think we'll know on election night or maybe wee hours the next morning. But other states, and some of these are by design and some are by lawsuits that have occurred that extend that, so I can't really predict. You know, I think in Oklahoma, you can make a great case that it's good to know. It's good for voters to know. It's good for candidates to know on election night who has won an election. But it's obvious in other states, if they're continuing to count ballots for days or weeks after the election, it will be some time before national results are known in some states.

I'm sure you're aware that the State Election Board faced a federal lawsuit this year in the Federal District Court in Tulsa. And one of the things that the plaintiffs had requested was that the federal judge rewrite Oklahoma's absentee ballot laws, including our deadline to receive absentee ballots on Election Day. But the judge thoroughly reviewed all the evidence and upheld Oklahoma's deadline of 7:00 p.m. on Election Day. So that's when absentee ballots are due. If you are returning yours by mail or private mail delivery service the county election board has to receive that by the time the polls close on Election Day. If you have a standard absentee ballot, you can hand deliver that. You just need to do it during regular business hours, no later than Monday prior to the election.

Dick Pryor: Paul, American democracy depends on people having trust and confidence in their elections. Can we trust the voting process and legitimacy of this election?

Paul Ziriax: You know, I can't speak for other states, but I will speak for Oklahoma. You know, there's a lot of attention placed, especially on absentee voting. I believe that absentee voting is safe in Oklahoma for a number of reasons. We verify through the affidavit verification that the person to whom an absentee ballot was issued is the person who voted that. So, we verify absentee ballots. We have chain of custody laws that prevent others from taking possession of people's absentee ballots where they can be tampered with or trashed. And there are a number of other protections in place. But here in Oklahoma, whether it's voting in person or during the early voting period or by absentee, we have safeguards in place that make sure that voting is safe and secure. And I have absolute confidence not only in the accuracy of our voting system in Oklahoma, but also in the security of that system.

Dick Pryor: And I might add that Oklahoma has long had a model voting system. Paul Ziriax, State Election Board secretary, thank you.

Paul Ziriax: Thank you very much.

Dick Pryor: All right. That's Capitol Insider. If you have questions, e-mail us at news@kgou.org, or contact us on Twitter @kgounews and @ecapitol. You can also find us online at kgou.org and 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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