By Parker Klingenberg
Oklahoma is just one of three states, joining Mississippi and Missouri, requiring absentee ballots to be officially notarized. This is a problem for many people in 2020 where it is difficult to do, well, almost anything without putting your health at risk. Before a major vote in Oklahoma on June 30 for the party primaries and a state question regarding expanding Medicare, the Oklahoma Supreme Court struck down this requirement in lieu of the pandemic. In response, the Oklahoma legislature immediately passed Senate Bill 210, which waived the notary requirement if a state of emergency had been declared or existed within forty-five days of an election. However, they did not eliminate the barrier completely; instead of notarization, an absentee voter must now include a photocopy of a valid photo ID. When the issue turned to the Federal District Court, Judge John Dowdell of the Northern District of Oklahoma denied a request for temporary injunction requesting a curtailing of absentee voting requirements, specifically pointing to Senate Bill 210 allowing exceptions in a state of emergency, writing that “the state has put in place alternatives that do not necessarily require that voters have direct contact with others in order to cast an absentee ballot,” and that the absentee voting requirements in Oklahoma are “reasonable, nondiscriminatory and legitimate.”
While Oklahoma governor Kevin Stitt has extended the state of emergency to include forty-five days prior to the November general election, many in Oklahoma are not happy about the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s recent decision. The Oklahoma Election Board Secretary himself opposed the elimination of the notary requirement, citing election security and possible voter confusion from such a change. Even the revised lower requirement of a photocopy of an ID is more than many states require for absentee voting. These requirements are a particular problem for Oklahoma, which regularly ranks among the bottom in voter turnout. Normally, there would not be much reason to complain from a practical perspective: Oklahoma is a solidly red state and likely will be for the foreseeable future. However, for Democrats, there was a recent spark of hope in the 2018 midterm elections, as Oklahoma 5th Congressional District, which encompasses most of the capital Oklahoma City, elected Kendra Horn… a Democrat! In Oklahoma! Horn is the first Democrat to represent the 5th District in forty-four years, and narrowly defeated her incumbent opponent by just over 3,000 votes.
While the Oklahoma Supreme Court has guaranteed that absentee voting requirements will be lowered during the pandemic, the exception only exists when a state of emergency has been existed within forty-five days of the election, meaning the notary requirement will rear its head again (assuming the pandemic actually will eventually end – fingers crossed). It is clear that many Oklahomans want to vote by mail; a record number attempted to do so during the June 30 election. The new mail-in voting requirement has been extremely popular amongst Democrats in particular, who make up only 34.5% of registered voters in the state, but made up over half of the mailed ballots in the June 30 election. In a state dominated by Republicans that only recently managed their first Democratic representative in years, the ability to vote by mail may prove an advantage to Democrats, which is likely a reason many Republicans, whether in Oklahoma or in the Oval Office, have voiced opposition to the process. Even when the pandemic isn’t at its peak, the fear of public appearance will remain for many. In the light of a post-pandemic world, will Oklahoman legislators and judges begin to view requirements such as getting an absentee ballot notarized as unreasonable and too restrictive? I believe that for the good of the state’s interest in an open and fair electoral process they must, but we must wait and see.
Whether the increased mail voting in Oklahoma is accounted for by the lowered requirement to do so, or by the fear of the coronavirus, or what mix of the two reasons, only time will tell. But the question I have for my beloved home state is this: why did it take the possibility of my fellow Oklahomans dying to give us a reasonable alternative to in-person voting?