Requiring mailed-in absentee ballots to be notarized in the November general election during the COVID-19 pandemic will disenfranchise many voters, according to testimony heard Wednesday in Tulsa federal court.
Marc Meredith, a political professor at the University of Pennsylvania, made the prediction during a hearing in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma.
Meredith was one of three witnesses to testify in a lawsuit challenging mailed-in voting requirements. The lawsuit was brought by two Democratic Party groups against the state.
The two groups are seeking to throw out a state law that requires absentee ballots to be notarized as well as other requirements to cast a ballot by mail, claiming they are unconstitutional because they pose an undue burden on the right to vote.
Chief U.S. District Judge John Dowdell listened to arguments pushed by the Democratic Party groups for both temporary and permanent injunctions to the absentee ballot requirements.
Meanwhile, attorneys for the state argued during the daylong hearing that the two groups did not have standing to bring the lawsuit and that the state’s ballot verification rules are necessary to prevent voter fraud.
The Oklahoma Democratic Party and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee filed the lawsuit in May in Tulsa federal court.
It seeks in part to have Dowdell declare that notarization, witness and photo identification requirements to cast a mailed-in ballot in Oklahoma “impose undue burdens on the right to vote in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.”
The lawsuit also takes aim at the requirement that ballots arrive at county election boards by the close of the polls on election day and the need for voters to use their own stamps to mail in the ballots, claiming the latter is a form of a poll tax.
While the state of Oklahoma has waived the notarization requirements for mailed absentee ballots cast during the June primary and Tuesday's elections due to COVID-19, the waiver would not apply during the November general election unless Gov. Kevin Stitt extends an emergency declaration.
The lawsuit claims that preliminary and permanent injunctions are necessary to prohibit the “burdensome restrictions and procedures” from taking place, especially during a pandemic.
“Unless rectified, these barriers will force voters to choose between their health and the health and safety of their community on the one hand, and their fundamental right to vote on the other,” the lawsuit says.
Dowdell gave the parties until Monday to file their proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law. He did not indicate when he might rule on the injunction requests.
The political parties named Oklahoma Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax and five members of the state Election Board as defendants in the lawsuit.
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter opposes the changes sought by the lawsuit, saying last week that they would cause “electoral disruption and facilitate voter fraud."
In addition to the notary requirement, the lawsuit seeks to overturn an election day ballot deadline for mailed in ballots.
Meredith said that based on past elections in the state, he expects that more than 2,300 mailed ballots will be rejected by county election boards because they arrived after the close of the polls on Election Day.
Meredith said up to 80% of the discounted ballots could be counted if the state were to rely on ballot postmarks to determine when ballots were cast and if the deadline to receive mailed ballots was extended by three days.
Ronald Stroman, a former deputy postmaster general, said it was a “high risk proposition” to say an absentee ballot requested seven days before an election would make it back to the election board in Oklahoma on time to be counted under the current rules.
Stroman, another witness for the Democratic Party groups, stood by his claim despite other evidence introduced in the hearing that indicated that 65% of the mailed-in absentee ballots requested in the past election made it back to the election board within seven days or less.
A Texas epidemiologist, meanwhile, testified that the pandemic was currently not under control in Oklahoma based on current statistics.
Catherine Troisi said that while actions taken by election workers to reduce the transmission of the virus have helped reduce the virus' spread, people would still be susceptible to contracting COVID-19 if they attempted to vote in person.
Oklahoma had a record number of people vote by mailed absentee ballot in the June primary election. An estimated 14% of ballots were cast by absentee versus 4% during prior elections.
While the state has established procedures to prevent the spread, attorneys for Oklahoma acknowledged under questioning by Dowdell that masks will only be strongly recommended and not required at polling places for both voters and poll workers.
Mithun Mansinghani, Oklahoma solicitor general, said during his closing arguments that in addition to the two Democratic Party groups not having standing to bring the lawsuit, there is no constitutional right to vote by absentee ballot.
Rather, Mansinghani said the state’s ballot verification requirements are necessary to combat voter fraud and promote “voter confidence.”
The fact that only three documented cases of voter fraud have been linked to mailed-in ballots since 1983 is a testament to the state’s verification laws, he said.
John Devaney, an attorney for the Democratic Party groups, said there is no evidence of a problem with voter fraud in Oklahoma that would “justify disenfranchising voters with these laws.”
Gallery: Complete coverage of Election night
Complete coverage of Election Night: Mayor G.T. Bynum wins second term; 3 city councilors win, 3 go to runoff
G.T. Bynum was elected to a second term Tuesday as Tulsans went to the polls and also elected three city councilors. Legislative races and city propositions were also voted on.
Here is the World's complete coverage from Election Night.
Incumbent brings in 52% to avoid runoff with community activist Greg Robinson.
Tulsa World’s Wayne Greene talks about the results on election night.
Our photographers were around town on Tuesday capturing images from candidates' watch parties.
Councilors Vanessa Hall-Harper in District 1, Crista Patrick in District 3 and Kara Joy McKee in District 4 were all winners. Councilors Cass Fahler in District 5, Lori Decter Wright in District 7 and Connie Dodson in District 6 face Nov. 3 runoffs.
The counting of absentee ballots happens after the polls close on Election Day, when the Tulsa County Election Board sends the information it has scanned from the ballots directly to the Oklahoma State Election Board on a secure line.
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