Ahead of Oklahoma’s June 30 primary election, the League of Women voters is asking the state Supreme Court to intervene in state election procedures to make it easier for residents to vote absentee.
The group, represented by attorneys from Crowe and Dunlevy, filed Thursday a writ of mandamus brief asking the state’s highest court to allow absentee voters to include on their ballot a signed statement swearing they are qualified to vote and marked their own ballot in lieu of getting the ballot notarized.
State law requires absentee ballots be signed and notarized by a notary public, and is one of just a few states with such a requirement. In Oklahoma, anyone can vote absentee.
The brief filed Thursday follows a request from more than 20 Oklahoma health care associations and civic engagement and voting rights groups asking Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax to relax the state’s notary requirements in light of the COVID-19 situation.
Absentee voting and ballot access is always an important issue, but it's a whole different ball game during this global pandemic, said Andy Moore, the founder of Let's Fix This. The grassroots group was among many to join the Let the People Vote coalition that inquired about changing the absentee ballot process.
"There's so much uncertainty about what the world's going to look like come June," he said.
The coalition interpreted Oklahoma law to mean the state’s top election official has the power to change the absentee ballot process, an assertion Ziriax disputed in a letter dated Wednesday.
Ziriax said last-minute changes to the state’s election process would disrupt the absentee voting process and confuse voters and election officials. He also said he doesn’t have the power to change the absentee voting process.
“Removing such statutorily mandated election security features is beyond the scope of the Secretary's authority under the Oklahoma Election Code," he wrote "As Oklahoma's chief election official, I have a duty to follow our election laws as written."
Asked this week about changing the absentee ballot requirements, Gov. Kevin Stitt said that was an issue he would have to discuss with state legislators. For now, there are no plans to move the election, he said.
"We looked at moving the election, but we think, at this time, we're safe to have that June election," he said.
Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said lawmakers are having discussions about altering the notary requirements. But with legislators away from the state Capitol due to COVID-19, it's unclear whether the idea is widely supported in the state's GOP-controlled Legislature and whether lawmakers could pass legislation in time to affect the June primary.
The League of Women voters is also asking the court to prohibit Ziriax and the State Election Board from sending out absentee ballot forms that suggest notarization is required for the ballot to be counted. They are asking instead that Ziriax be directed to send out absentee ballot forms that instruct voters how to, under the penalty of perjury, include a signed statement verifying they are qualified to vote and marked their own ballot.
This request comes just days after Stitt announced State Question 802, which asks Oklahomans to expand Medicaid, will be on the June 30 ballot.
Calling the June 30 election “highly consequential,” the petitioners ask the court quickly resolve the issue.
“(I)n addition to the numerous state and federal primary contests and local matters that will appear on the June ballot, the Governor also recently set this date for a special statewide election regarding State Question 802, the initiative petition to expand Medicaid in Oklahoma,” according to the filing. “With surging demand for absentee ballots and deadlines looming, resolution of this question is needed urgently.”
Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, said she thinks Stitt put SQ 802 on the June ballot because it will be politically advantageous for him and others who oppose the question.
There will be Oklahomans who are fearful of going to the polls because of the virus, she said.
"This is an issue many people in the state have been watching," she said. "I think this is an issue that many people in the state want to vote on, and I guess, I'm a little concerned that by putting it on the June ballot, when we're still trying to deal with the pandemic, was maybe not in the best interest of Oklahomans who want to exercise their constitutional right to vote."
Absentee voting materials and supplies already have been purchased and printed, Ziriax said.
“This eleventh-hour demand for changes to Oklahoma's absentee voting procedures comes barely three weeks before the federally-mandated deadline to send Primary Election absentee ballots to uniformed services voters,” he wrote. “The ballot preparation and printing process is already underway.”
June 5 is the last day to register to vote in the primary election. The deadline to request an absentee ballot is 5 p.m. on June 25. Request an absentee ballot at ok.gov/elections/Voter_Info/Absentee_Voting.