Clarification: This story reported that state law limits the number of absentee ballots a notary can notarize to 20 per election. There are exceptions to that limit. More than 20 can be notarized if the notary receives written permission from the county election board secretary. The limit of 20 doesn't apply to a notary who notarizes at their place of business during normal business hours. This story has been updated.
A state lawmaker who tried to make it a little easier for voters to cast ballots by mail predicts the COVID-19 epidemic will result in three to four times more people trying to cast ballots by mail during the next election.
While the bill failed to pass a House vote, the measure, along with a lawsuit filed Thursday, points to an absentee ballot system that could be strained in upcoming elections due to COVID-19.
Less than 5% of voters cast ballots via the mail-in absentee system during the 2018 general election.
The Oklahoma absentee balloting system has come under scrutiny after the League of Women Voters of Oklahoma filed a lawsuit Thursday in the Oklahoma Supreme Court challenging the requirement that voters have their mail-in absentee ballots notarized during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Oklahoma is one of only three states, according to the lawsuit, that requires a mail-in absentee ballot to be accompanied by an affidavit notarized in person by a notary public.
Rep. Meloyde Blancett, D-Tulsa, said she introduced HB 3317 earlier this year, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, with the goal of easing restrictions on the number of mail-in absentee ballots that a notary could notarize.
State law limits the number of mail-in absentee ballots that a notary can notarize to 20 per election. A notary is allowed to exceed 20 with with the written approval of the county election board secretary. The limit of 20 doesn't apply to some entities or businesses as long as the ballots are notarized at the place of business during normal business hours.
Blancett called the current ballot limit on notaries “onerous,” but she said she understood the need to provide election security.
That’s why, Blancett said, she agreed to amend her original bill to reduce the proposed number of ballots that a notary could notarize during an election from 150 to 50 after discussing the bill with Oklahoma Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax.
The bill was also amended to include a clause that would waive the ballot limit, if the notary pre-registered with the election board, Blancett said.
But the bill was defeated the evening of March 11 — the last day the legislature was to meet prior to COVID-19 taking hold here — by a 40-55 vote that included 18 Republican “yes” votes.
If Blancett is correct in her prediction, about 150,000 to 200,000 voters could cast a ballot by mail-in absentee.
About 53,000 people voted by mail-in absentee ballot in the 2018 general election, or about 4.5% of the total number of votes cast, records show.
A Tulsa World analysis of 2018 general election balloting shows both major political parties saw a similar share of their voters cast ballots by absentee mail.
About 4.5% of Democratic votes and Republican votes in the 2018 general election came via mail-in absentee ballot, records show.
A slightly bigger share of independent voters, about 4.7%, mailed-in their 2018 general election ballots, records show.
Blancett said she believes that a surge in voters seeking to avoid election-day crowds by casting mailed-in ballots could face a difficult time.
“Finding a notary with the still 20-notary limit is going to be a challenge because I don’t think every single notary is going to be out there interacting with the public in this difficult environment, and I think the notaries that are out are going to be inundated,” Blancett said.
There are 76,458 notaries in the state of Oklahoma, according to the Oklahoma Secretary of State office, which registers notaries.
Blancett said she hopes eventually the mail-in absentee ballot regulations can be loosened to encourage greater voter engagement.
Meanwhile, Ziriax said Wednesday that removing the notarization requirement would leave Oklahoma without any way to ensure the person who requested an absentee ballot was the same person who cast the ballot.
Other states that don’t require a notary for mail-in ballots can rely on either matching the voter’s signature sent with the ballot with one already on file or permitting a non-notary witness to sign off on the authenticity of the voter.
“The bill, for a variety of reasons, it wasn’t all policy related, there was some personal, political strife going on on the floor that had absolutely nothing to do with the efficacy of the policy, which caused that bill to go down in flames,” Blancett said.
“I just thought the 20 ballot notary limit was artificially low, and I wanted to open it up a little bit,” Blancett said.
“I think that one of the ways going forward that we can get greater voter engagement is through perhaps expanding the use of absentee ballots because people are very interested in that.”
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