Federal Judge Upholds Oklahoma’s Absentee Voting Requirements

(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

TULSA, Okla. (CN) — A federal judge declined Thursday evening to block Oklahoma’s photo identification and notarized signature requirements for absentee ballots during the Covid-19 pandemic, ignoring Democrats’ arguments that the law suppresses voters.

U.S. District Judge John Dowell in Tulsa refused to enter a preliminary injunction, concluding the requirements enacted by the Republican-controlled Oklahoma Legislature are “reasonable, nondiscriminatory and legitimate.” He said legislators have put in place measures to ensure voting will be safe.

“The concerns about voting during the pandemic, especially to the elderly and other voters who are at a higher risk for serious outcomes, are justified,” the 52-page opinion states. 

“However, 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 the evidence and law substantiate that the state’s interests in preventing voter fraud and promoting certainty and confidence are sufficiently weighty to overcome any minor burden imposed upon Oklahoma voters during the pandemic.”

The Oklahoma Democratic Party and national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sued the state’s election board in May for declaratory and injunctive relief after Senate Bill 210 was enacted. 

The law requires either a notarized signature or a photocopy of a voter’s identification if Republican Governor Kevin Stitt’s Covid-19 state of emergency is in effect 45 days before or after a scheduled election.

SB 210 was enacted mere days after the Oklahoma Supreme Court struck down a previous requirement that absentee ballots be notarized, finding that requirement failed to qualify as an exception to a 2002 state law allowing signed, sworn statements made under the penalty of perjury to suffice.

Judge Dowell also disagreed with the Democrats’ challenge of the state’s deadline for county election boards to accept election ballots no later than 7:00 p.m. on Election Day. 

He reasoned the court would have to delay county and state certifications deadlines by a week if he extended the deadline, creating a problem due to the Legislature’s terms expiring the fifteenth day after Election Day.

“[S]uch delays would leave only 24 hours before the new members of the state House of Representatives are seated,” the opinion states. “The remedy requested by plaintiffs would require numerous judicial-modifications of Oklahoma legislation, which the court is disinclined to do because of the disruption to the state’s overall electoral process.”

The judge said he placed “significant weight” on Oklahoma’s argument that changes to absentee ballot laws so close to Election Day would risk delaying delivery of ballots and confuse voters who want to vote absentee.

“In short, the ballots, ballot envelopes and instructions for the ballot envelopes have necessarily already been printed in July and August, and to require reprinting or a change in the election procedures would risk significant voter confusion, delay of receipt of absentee ballots and disenfranchising or dissuading voters who may otherwise wish to vote by absentee ballot,” the opinion states.

Judge Dowell notes that if he decided to block the law, Oklahoma would be left without any voter identification requirements and that the risk of potential voter fraud “undoubtedly increases.”

He was also not persuaded by the Democrats’ argument that the state’s refusal to prepay postage to mail back completed ballots constitutes an illegal poll tax.

Republican Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter cheered the ruling, saying Judge Dowell “got it right.”

“I applaud his objective ruling,” Hunter said in a statement. “The procedures put in place by the legislature this year, and extended by the governor’s recent executive order, make it perfectly safe for Oklahomans to cast their ballot for the November election. Not to mention, hundreds of thousands of Oklahomans have already voted in both the primary and run-off elections earlier this year in-person and by absentee ballot.”

The state election board’s website provides lists of several hundred banks, libraries and community centers that provide free notary and photo identification photocopying services for absentee voters. Some of the locations provide drive-through services, Hunter said.

The Oklahoma Democratic Party did not immediately respond to an email message requesting comment Thursday evening.

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