Law & Principles

Election security measure gains strong House approval

May 6, 2020

Ray Carter

After the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that state law allows citizens to vote absentee by simply signing an affidavit, members of the Oklahoma House of Representatives voted Wednesday to revise the law and address associated concerns about election fraud.

Prior to the court’s ruling, all absentee ballots had to include a notarized affidavit to ensure the person casting a ballot was the person who requested the ballot. The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled this week that existing law did not mandate the notarization procedure.

Under Senate Bill 210, when absentee voting occurs in an election conducted during a declared health emergency, voters can attach a photocopy of a form of identification along with a signed affidavit rather than get the document notarized.  After the June 30 election, voters would again need to have absentee ballots notarized.

“The worst thing that you can do is fraudulently vote,” said Rep. Chris Kannady, R-Oklahoma City. “To me it’s akin to stolen valor. And this is the way that we prevent that from happening.”

Kannady, who carried the bill on the House floor, said the measure would discourage election fraud. He noted the requirement for notarization of absentee ballots has been in place for 18 years and was originally enacted when Democrats controlled the Oklahoma Legislature.

“The pushback on this particular bill, it’s perceived that this is going to quell voter turnout,” Kannady said. “That’s not true.”

Without passage of SB 210, Kannady said Oklahoma would be “one of only a few states, if the law stays the way it is, with no possible way to verify an absentee ballot.”

Democratic lawmakers peppered Kannady with questions and debated against the bill at length, arguing fraud concerns are overblown and the cost of photocopying an ID represents an insurmountable financial barrier for some citizens.

“Voter fraud is very rare,” said Rep. John Waldron, D-Tulsa, who added that “manipulation of social media” and “penetration of the data systems of our electoral boards” are bigger problems.

“This nonexistent voter fraud is being used as a ruse to make it harder to vote,” said Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman.

While Democrats dismissed fraud concerns, two Republican legislators said recent events suggest it may be more widespread than many believe.

In a recent election in his district, Rep. Kevin McDugle said he pulled the list of voters shown to have voted in at least three of the last five general and primary elections.

“There were 20 lots, empty lots, in one of the neighborhoods that I walked that had no house,” said McDugle, R-Broken Arrow. “Had an address. Somebody had voted from that address. But no house. No one lived there.”

Rep. Scott Fetgatter, R-Okmulgee, experienced the same thing. When volunteers knocked doors in one community in his district, they found many addresses were vacant lots.

“Nearly half of the addresses on the list of people who had voted in three of the last five general elections, there wasn’t even a house,” Fetgatter said. “So where was that ballot getting mailed to? Because you can request the ballot to be mailed wherever you’d like, wherever you request. I mean, the ground wasn’t even freshly scraped at these addresses. I mean, there were trees growing on these properties where houses used to sit. But that was the current data.”

“I am one that fought in the United States Marine Corps for the freedoms and liberties of our country, and I stand here as a representative today and continue to fight to protect the people of the state of Oklahoma to let them know that their vote—and only their vote—is going to count,” McDugle said. “We need to be fighting for verification. We can’t have votes that come in from death rolls.”

Virgin also suggested the cost of getting an ID photocopied represented a financial barrier for some voters.

“I think it’s awfully privileged of us to say that the cost of a photocopy may not be a barrier,” Virgin said. “Can you recognize that the cost of a copy or the physical going to, making a copy, is actually a barrier for some people.”

Other Democrats made similar arguments.

“While the ID copy is accessible for some, it’s not accessible for everyone,” said Rep. Chelsey Branham, D-Oklahoma City. “Not everyone has a network of people and support around them to be able to help them access that if they don’t currently have access. We have a large homeless population. We have a large population of individuals that live in poverty. And many of those people won’t be able to have access to those things, so their options are to risk going in public, to risk being exposed by a notary that many other people are coming into contact with, or to potentially not have the resources to get that ID to send in with their ballot.”

“Senate Bill 210 is highlighting those who have privileges and those who do not,” said Rep. Cyndi Munson, D-Oklahoma City. “This bill requires a voter to have privileges like having access to a notary public, having access to money, having access to a cell phone, having access to a copy machine, having access to transportation, having access to friends, having access to family.”

“The discussion around whether you can afford a stamp or what, or a copy, or anything, shouldn’t matter, because a single penny standing between a person and their constitutional right to vote is a poll tax,” said Rep. Forrest Bennett, D-Oklahoma City.

Kannady said there are easy ways for people to get photocopies.

“I think that there are always alternatives to address the problem of a penny or a five-cent copy,” Kannady said.

Rep. Andy Fugate, D-Oklahoma City, predicted the legislation would draw legal challenges.

“It is absolutely vital to our way of life that we maintain the integrity of our elections but passing this law won’t stop criminals. It won’t do that,” Fugate said. “All it will do is just help another ACLU attorney buy a new house and retire early.”

But Rep. Ryan Martinez, R-Edmond, argued Oklahomans strongly support measures like SB 210 that target voter fraud, noting more than 74 percent of voters supported State Question 746, which required voter ID before casting a ballot in person.

“The voters got to speak on this issue,” Martinez said, “and they spoke loud and they spoke clear.”

Several outside groups lobbied against SB 210 and similar measures, including Oklahoma Call for Reproductive Justice, which called the proposal “an irresponsible action during a pandemic” and “voter suppression” in a tweet.  

The ACLU of Oklahoma attacked the proposal as “a partisan, political agenda that makes voting more difficult.”

The Oklahoma Parent Legislative Action Committee urged opposition, saying the requirement to have “photocopied ID to accompany the absentee ballot” is “a barrier to many without access to a copier.”

The state affiliate of the National Education Association union, the Oklahoma Education Association, declared on Facebook that it was “so proud to be part of the coalition that brought” the lawsuit that challenged ballot notarization.

Despite those lobbying efforts, Senate Bill 210 easily passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives on a 74-26 vote that broke largely along party lines.

Only three Republicans joined Democrats in opposition: Reps. Ronny Johns of Ada, Daniel Pae of Lawton, and John Talley of Stillwater.

The bill now proceeds to the Oklahoma Senate.