Many Oklahomans could have second thoughts about voting in person this year in light of the coronavirus pandemic. But it’s unclear if state lawmakers and officials will ease requirements for voting by mail.
Thousands of Oklahoma voters are expected to head to the polls in less than a month for school board and special elections in almost every county in the state.
The April 7 election will be the first test of how the state handles the growing concerns of the coronavirus pandemic as election officials across the country are reevaluating voting procedures and the risks to voters and polling staff.
Oklahoma Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax said state election officials continue to “monitor the situation” as new facts about the spread and severity of the virus emerge almost every day.
But Ziriax noted that voters have options if they don’t want to risk a visit to their polling place. Oklahoma is one of 34 states that allows voters to cast their ballot early through the mail without giving a reason.
“Oklahoma already has ‘no excuse’ absentee voting, so no change in law is necessary for more voters to vote by mail,” Ziriax said. “Oklahomans who choose to vote by mail can request absentee ballots using the OK Voter Portal (on the Election Board website).”
But Oklahoma’s law comes with a catch: Most absentee ballots must be signed and then notarized by a notary public – a rare requirement nationally that concerns advocates for more convenient voting. Physically incapacitated voters and voters who care for physically incapacitated persons who cannot be left alone aren’t required to have their absentee ballots notarized. State law requires that the notarization be free.
Despite the lack of a charge, Amy McReynolds, head of the nonprofit National Vote at Home Institute, said this step is an unnecessary obstacle that likely deters many people from exercising the option.
“It’s definitely a hindrance and something we rarely see in red or blue states,” she said. “We advocate for ways to make voting as convenient and accessible as possible, and this doesn’t do that.”
McReynolds, who formerly was Denver’s director of elections, said the coronavirus pandemic is the latest public emergency that highlights the need for states to have robust and easy vote-by-mail options.
“People forget, but there was an election in New York on 9/11,” she said. “We have had elections with floods, fires and all sorts of things. It’s a lot of risk to have everything come down to being at a place on a certain day.”
The purpose of witnessing and notarizing a voter’s signature on an absentee ballot is to help verify the person’s identity and prevent fraud.
But according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Oklahoma and Mississippi are the only states that require a notary public or an official witness to notarize the document. Other states use signature verification, require one or two witnesses to sign the ballot, allow voters to include a copy of their ID, or a combination of those.
Ziriax said he is more confident in a system where notaries verify the signatures than requiring election officials to match a voters’ signatures or allowing non-official witnesses to sign the ballot.
“You are dealing with a situation where there is a duly sworn officer of the state who is authorized to take oaths,” he said.
Ziriax said procedures in other states, such as requiring ballot workers to match the voters’ signature with the signature on file, can take a long time and delay election results.
There are currently no active bills before the Legislature that would remove notaries from the process or make voting by mail easier. During a press conference on the coronavirus Thursday, Republican leaders did not mention any plans to introduce legislation that addresses how elections would be affected by coronavirus concerns.
The last major attempt to change how absentee ballots are verified came in 2017, when then-Sen. David Holt, now mayor of Oklahoma City, filed a bill that would allow voters to mail in a photocopy of their ID instead of having it notarized. The bill died without getting a hearing in committee.
Oklahoma’s law also sets a cap of 20 for the number of absentee ballots a notary can notarize without special authorization.
The cap is waived when the service is done at the notary’s normal place of business during business hours.
Ziriax said the cap came about after an Adair County notary, Darryl Cates, was convicted of falsifying signatures on dozens of absentee ballots and personally notarizing them in 2009.
A bill to increase the cap to 50 if the notary notifies the county election board failed on a 40-55 House vote earlier this session.
Rep. Cyndi Munson, D-Oklahoma City, has filed legislation several times in recent years to remove that cap. However, those bills didn’t make it out of committee.
Munson said as more voters chose to vote by mail, the cap could make it even harder to find a notary to witness the signature and verify the ballot.
She said she supports moving to a different verification model, such as Holt’s, so a notary wouldn’t be needed.
“It is one of the main barriers that I hear from people,” she said. “Not only do you have to find a notary, but notaries can only sign so many.”
Absentee mail ballots make up a small amount of the votes cast in Oklahoma. Only 22,765, or 3.8%, of votes cast in the Republican and Democratic presidential primary election earlier this month came from mailed ballots.
But Munson said she thinks the demand for mail-in voting will only increase because other states, such as Colorado, Washington and Oregon, have moved ahead with more comprehensive mail voting procedures, such as automatically sending all voters a mail-in ballot.
Now, with the COVID-19 epidemic, voting by mail could also help protect public health, she said. Fewer voters would crowd into polling places, and local election boards would need fewer poll workers, who typically are older and at higher risk of falling seriously ill from the virus.
Louisiana became the first states to move or cancel one of its elections because of the coronavirus after officials there announced Friday they will move its presidential primary from April 4 to June.
With the coronavirus concerns giving states across the country a new reason to take another look at alternative voting methods, Munson said she believes that, over time, mail voting will become more of the norm than the exception.
“It might take a lot of little steps, but I think we will get there eventually,” she said.
How to Apply for an Absentee Ballot
Applications for absentee ballots must be made in writing or using the Oklahoma State Election Board’s Online Absentee Voting Application. Absentee ballot application forms are available from all county election boards and from the State Election Board. Or, download a form here.
You are not required to use the form, however. You may write a letter to your county election board to apply for absentee ballots. The letter must contain the following information.
- Your name.
- Your birth date.
- The address at which you are registered to vote.
- The election or elections for which you are requesting ballots.
- The address to which the ballots should be mailed.
- Your signature.
You may apply for absentee ballots for one election, for several elections or for all elections in which you are eligible to vote during the calendar year in which the application is submitted.
Update: This story was updated at 12:35 p.m. Friday to include additional comments from Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax.