Editor's note: The original version contained an error regarding notarization of ballots for incapacitated people. It has been corrected.
During last year’s general election, 5,098 mailed-in ballots were rejected by election boards across Oklahoma. Disqualification of these ballots disenfranchised those voters because they had no recourse.
Oklahoma Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax told the House Elections and Ethics Committee recently that “balancing security and convenience is the biggest challenge for Oklahoma election code.” A greater challenge for the state electoral process and the national debate over voting rights remains the question about democracy and how we keep it.
The Legislature’s Absentee Voting Study resolved many concerns over the system’s security. Oklahoma’s elections are the most secure in the nation. There are no grounds for an audit. If the Oklahoma voter security system were in place nationally, our republic would be secure.
The study also highlighted restrictions that imperil voter access for Oklahomans using mail-in voting. Most Oklahoma voters go to their neighborhood polls, simply produce a photo ID or voter registration card, sign a register, receive the ballot, complete it and cast the vote.
By comparison, a more complicated process is encountered when casting a vote by mail. Before receiving a ballot, a voter must first complete an application for an absentee ballot and file it with the county election board at least 15 days before the election. Upon receiving the absentee ballot package, a voter will find a ballot, detailed instructions, a ballot envelope, an affidavit envelope and a mailing envelope.
And then the balloting process becomes even more complicated. After marking the ballot, a person places it in the ballot envelope and then inserts the ballot envelope into the affidavit envelope. Before mailing, however, a voter must meticulously complete, sign and notarize this affidavit.
If casting a “physically incapacitated” absentee vote, the affidavit requires two people older than 16 to sign and address as witnesses. Also, if a voter is assisted in completing the ballot, the person providing the assistance cannot serve as one of the witnesses.
Only after completing the affidavit may a voter place the ballot in the mailing envelope, attach postage and mail in the vote. Although the steps are detailed in the instructions, a person has to be a discernable voter to unravel them.
The good news is Oklahoma, unlike many other mail-in states, does not require a voter to have a reason to request the absentee ballot. The bad news for our democracy is a voter must follow to the letter technicalities in applying, providing verification and submitting a ballot.
Any discrepancy is a reason for the county election board to reject the ballot.
The most frequent ground for rejection is the notarization. The best solution to the notary mistakes is to come up with a better way to verify the voter’s identity and qualify the ballot.
Only two other states, Mississippi and Missouri, require a notary public. A copy of the voter’s ID or voter’s card should be sufficient as proof, just as they were during the last election because of the pandemic emergency.
In the legislative study, the National Conference of State Legislatures, a Denver-based state legislative think tank, identified 18 states plus the District of Columbia that have right-to-cure laws allowing the citizens to correct their mistakes. Other states are on the way to passing cure bills.
The study revealed bipartisan support for a cure bill. Rep. Andy Fugate, D-Del City, has a cure bill that was approved in committee last session and awaits a floor vote. Rep. Regina Goodwin, D-Tulsa, introduced another cure proposal, but it was not heard by the House Elections Committee.
Oklahoma needs passage of a right-to-cure now or face another round of 5,000 citizens losing their right to vote in 2022 races. It all depends on the political will of legislators to preserve and protect democracy for all Oklahomans.
Bruce Niemi is vice chairman of the Tulsa County Election Board.