Law & Principles
Ray Carter | April 27, 2020
Calls to change absentee voting process raise fraud concerns
In response to COVID-19, a coalition of mostly left-leaning organizations is demanding that Oklahoma abandon a longstanding election-security safeguard.
Oklahoma law allows absentee voting for any reason but is among several states that require that an absentee ballot be signed by a notary public to verify that the person filling out a ballot is the individual who requested the absentee ballot.
A coalition calling itself “Let the People Vote” is now calling for elimination of that requirement and instead wants to allow absentee ballots to be submitted with only a signed statement swearing the person filling out the ballot is the person who requested the ballot.
In a letter sent to the Oklahoma State Election Board on April 20, “Let the People Vote” declared that the state’s existing procedure means absentee voters are “forced to increase their risk of exposure by leaving their home, travelling to a notary, interacting with that notary face to face, and transferring documents between them.”
The organization’s member groups include organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma chapter of the National Education Association.
The coalition argues the secretary of the Oklahoma State Election Board is allowed by state law to unilaterally change absentee-voting requirements. That’s a claim strongly disputed by Paul Ziriax, secretary of the Oklahoma Election Board.
In a letter of response, Ziriax said, “Removing such statutorily mandated election security features is beyond the scope of the Secretary’s authority under the Oklahoma Election Code. As Oklahoma’s chief election official, I have a duty to follow our election laws as written.”
From a logistical standpoint, Ziriax also noted that the demands of “Let the People Vote” are impractical. He said the “ballot preparation and printing process is already underway” for the June 30 state primaries, and that absentee voting materials and supplies for that election “have already been purchased and printed.” In addition, the federally mandated deadline for sending primary election absentee ballots to uniformed services voters is just weeks away.
Ziriax also said the requirement for notarization of absentee ballots “is a key election security measure put in place decades ago by the State Legislature to detect and punish fraud.”
He wrote that adopting the changes requested by the “Let the People Vote” coalition “would effectively leave Oklahoma without any verification of absentee voters in place and would make our state a national outlier. Given Oklahoma’s unfortunate history of absentee ballot fraud, this should be concerning to all Oklahoma voters as it would put the security and integrity of Oklahoma elections at risk at a time when public confidence is needed. Without a means of voter verification in place, election officials could not ascertain that the person to whom an absentee ballot was issued is the same person who voted the ballot and signed the affidavit.”
The ‘Tool of Choice’ for Election Fraud
A database of election fraud cases maintained by The Heritage Foundation includes attempted fraud with absentee ballots even under Oklahoma’s current system, including conviction of a 2015 candidate for trustee in Luther, Oklahoma, who brought in several absentee ballots to be notarized.
Similarly, a conviction was obtained in a 2009 Cave Springs School District election in which 33 ballots were disputed based on inconsistencies between the signatures on ballot-request forms and voter affidavits.
In Missouri, which has a similar requirement for notarization of absentee ballots, the result of a judicial primary election in 2016 was overturned after absentee-ballot irregularities.
One of the most high-profile cases of absentee voting fraud occurred in 2018 in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District. The general election results were overturned after allegations of fraud and “ballot harvesting,” a practice in which campaign officials gather absentee ballots and turn them in for voters, emerged.
North Carolina has notarization requirements for absentee ballots that are similar to those imposed in Oklahoma, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The problem of absentee-ballot election fraud has been longstanding. In 1998, a Florida Department Of Law Enforcement report stated, “The absentee ballot is the ‘tool of choice’ for those who are engaging in election fraud. The absentee ballot’s very nature makes it the mechanism to use when trying to capitalize on a voter’s infirmities or desire to make some quick money.”
The Public Interest Legal Foundation recently found that 28.3 million mail-in ballots “went missing” from the 2012 to 2018 elections, based on data from the federal Election Assistance Commission.
“Over the recent decade, there were 28 million missing and misdirected ballots,” said Public Interest Legal Foundation President J. Christian Adams. “These represent 28 million opportunities for someone to cheat. Absentee ballot fraud is the most common; the most expensive to investigate; and can never be reversed after an election.”
Recent experience in Wisconsin suggests the COVID-19 concerns raised by “Let the People Vote” to justify changing Oklahoma election law are unfounded.
When a statewide election was conducted in Wisconsin on April 7, one publication declared it would be “a public health disaster.” But subsequent evaluations have shown the election had virtually no impact on public health, even though around 450,000 Wisconsin residents voted in person that day.
A recent study found that rates of new confirmed COVID-19 cases didn’t increase in Wisconsin compared with the rest of the country after the April 7 election, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.
Researchers looked at rates of COVID-19 in Wisconsin, and in three major counties in the state, for a 10-day period before the election and in the 10 days afterward, reviewing the days when new infections would be expected to arise from virus exposure while voting.
The ratio of Wisconsin’s rate of new confirmed COVID-19 cases compared to the U.S. rate before the election was 0.34:1. That dropped to 0.28:1 in the 10 days after the election.
Officials found 23 people who voted in person or served as poll workers later tested positive for COVID-19, but many of those individuals reported other potential exposures to the coronavirus, the Journal reported. Those individuals represent 0.005 percent of all individuals who participated in in-person voting that day.
Notably, several of the justifications given by “Let the People Vote” for changing ballot processes are already becoming obsolete. In its April 20 letter, the group cited Gov. Kevin Stitt’s issuance of a “safer at home” order and several mayors’ issuance of “shelter in place” orders. Many provisions of those orders are being lifted starting May 1 and few are expected to remain in place by June 30.
Those seeking to loosen Oklahoma’s absentee ballot procedures have now requested that the Oklahoma Supreme Court intervene and mandate their preferred changes to election law.
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.