Law & Principles

Ray Carter | August 22, 2020

Oklahoma AG defends election security laws, opposes ballot harvesting

Ray Carter

Attorney General Mike Hunter pushed back Friday against a Democratic lawsuit that seeks the elimination of many absentee-ballot safeguards and the legalization of “ballot harvesting” in Oklahoma, saying adoption of the policies advocated by the plaintiffs risks “undermining the suffrage rights of all Oklahomans.”

In May, the Oklahoma Democratic Party and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee filed a lawsuit challenging several Oklahoma election laws that govern absentee voting, declaring those regulations to be “burdensome restrictions” that “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 Democrats’ lawsuit asked the court to declare unconstitutional several laws, including a requirement for absentee ballots to include notarization or a copy of a voter’s ID (which proponents say reduces voter fraud); the deadline for absentee ballots to be delivered by 7 p.m. on Election Day in order to be counted; and a ban on organizations collecting absentee ballots and delivering them en masse to polling places, a practice commonly referred to as “ballot harvesting.”

In his brief, Hunter said there is no “substantial evidence that in-person voting creates a significant risk for COVID-19 transmission to voters. In Oklahoma, the number of confirmed active cases at any given time in Oklahoma is low: only 0.19% of the population, so the chances of someone encountering a person spreading the virus is small. And several studies have shown that in-person elections in the United States during the pandemic, such as those in Wisconsin, were not associated with significant spikes in COVID-19 rates” [legal citations omitted in quote].

In addition, Hunter noted state election officials coordinated with the OU Health Sciences Center to develop election protocols that now include “markers and signage for social distancing, alcohol wipes for machines and common surfaces, personal protective equipment for poll workers, and masking recommendations for voters.”

Hunter’s brief argued the Democrats’ lawsuit was legally flawed, citing several technical issues, but also based on broader principles.

Hunter said there is “no evidence” that COVID-19 “has led to significant voter burdens on Oklahoma as a whole; to the contrary, voter participation has gone up.” In Oklahoma’s June 30 primary election, he noted only 0.14 percent of votes were rejected because of ballot verification laws, even as the share of citizens voting absentee increased.

“Plaintiffs ask the Court to substitute Oklahoma’s absentee ballot verification options—notarization or two-witness signature or photo ID copy—with one newly crafted by the Court that amounts to no verification at all: a signature that is not matched with any pre-existing voter signature database,” Hunter’s brief states.

The attorney general said his office has documented over 100 cases of absentee fraud throughout the nation, “including Oklahoma,” and warned the Democrats’ lawsuit could fuel a far higher level of voter fraud.

“Plaintiffs’ request to ease the ability of persons to commit absentee voter fraud—and to get away with it—risks undermining the suffrage rights of all Oklahomans,” Hunter said.

The attorney general strongly condemned efforts to legalize ballot harvesting in Oklahoma.

“Ballot harvesting breaks the chain of custody between voters and government officials with the possibility that votes will be unduly influenced, tampered with, or destroyed,” Hunter’s brief stated. “Recent experiences show how such efforts can fraudulently alter the results of an election. The State is under no constitutional duty to take such risks.”

The brief noted that a ballot-harvesting incident “undid a Congressional race in North Carolina two years ago.”

“Moreover, Plaintiffs’ complaints are self-contradictory: for other claims, they decry the risk to voters from personal contact from outsiders during the pandemic (especially the elderly) when voting in-person or complying with the Ballot Verification Laws, but then ask for the Court to allow Plaintiffs to go around en masse potentially exposing the most vulnerable populations to the virus through their ballot harvesting activities,” Hunter’s brief states [emphasis in original].

In their lawsuit, the Oklahoma Democratic Party and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee declared their election efforts would “include assisting voters in delivering their sealed and voted ballots upon request, if not for the Absentee Assistance Ban.”

The Oklahoma Democratic Party and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s efforts to legalize ballot harvesting appear to run contrary to the wishes of elected Democratic lawmakers in the Legislature, who voted overwhelmingly to ban the practice this year.

Senate Bill 1779 made absentee ballot harvesting “unlawful at any election conducted by a county election board, the State Election Board or any political subdivision of this state.” The bill passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives on an 88-1 vote with all but one Democratic member present voting in favor. SB 1779 then passed without opposition in the Oklahoma Senate, receiving the support of every Democratic lawmaker in that chamber.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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