Dozens of bills filed in advance of Oklahoma’s 2022 legislative session are seeking to change how, when and where Oklahomans vote.
Though a number of the proposals seek to expand voting times or make it easier for some to vote, others could force residents off the state’s voter rolls or add hurdles for absentee voters in the name of security and preventing fraud.
An Oklahoma Watch review of bill filings ahead of the session beginning Monday found about 75 elections or voting-related that can be heard this year.
In addition, there are more than a dozen shell, or placeholder, bills with titles such as the “Election Reform Act of 2022.” These bills currently do not have any language attached, but House lawmakers can swap in proposals during the session.
Of the bills with language so far, about 20 seek to add days, extra opportunities or methods for Oklahomans to vote or get registered to vote. About the same number of bills would add new requirements, trim ineligible residents from the state’s voter rolls or create new post-election audits or reviews.
The proposals come after Texas, Georgia, Iowa, Arkansas and several other Republican-led states responded to unfounded and refuted claims about the 2020 presidential election by enacting laws making it harder for many to vote.
With others calling for national or state-level changes to open up voting, Oklahoma became one of the few Republican-led states to expand voting access last year with passage of a bipartisan bill adding an early voting day for presidential elections.
It’s unclear whether state lawmakers will be looking to shore up voting requirements, provide more opportunities to vote or largely leave the state’s election laws untouched this year.
Stephanie Henson, vice president of the League of Women Voters of Oklahoma, said she hopes lawmakers look to expand voting rights.
“I don’t think we have a problem here and I think a lot of these (restrictive) bills are unnecessary,” she said. “And if we can just make it a little easier on one another to practice our right to vote, why don’t we do that?”
Requiring All Oklahomans to Re-Register
One of the most far-reaching proposals is a bill from Rep. Sean Roberts, R-Hominy, that would require all state voters to re-register after 2023. Oklahomans would also need to provide proof of U.S. citizenship, Oklahoma residence and other identification to regain their voting rights.
Since most Oklahomans maintain registration status as long as they don’t move and continue to be an active voter, this could place a big hurdle for many to have their voting eligibility restored.
The proposal is unlikely to pass and could prompt lawsuits if passed. But it shows the length that some lawmakers are willing to go in their quest for election security.
Roberts, who is also challenging long-time U.S. Rep. Frank Lucas in the 3rd Congressional District GOP primary, did not respond for comment.
While Roberts’ bill might not be on legislative leaders’ priority list, there is a proposal from the Senate leader that could have sweeping impact.
A proposal from Senate Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, would create a state question asking voters to add a voter-ID requirement to the state constitution.
Voters passed a state question in 2010 that added a statutory requirement for voters to provide identification before voting. But that law has faced legal challenges, which so far have been rejected. Elevating the measure to a constitutional protection could safeguard it from future lawsuits.
The potential impact such a state question is cloudy since the proposal gives the Legislature authority to specify identification requirements.
A spokesman for Treat said he was unavailable to take questions on the bill.
Lawmakers also seek to ensure the state’s voter registration list disqualifies deceased or otherwise eligible voters, add restrictions for notaries that must sign off on mailed absentee ballots and specify what voters need to fill out on their absentee ballots.
At least 11 bills filed would require some type of post-election audit or review.
Several lawmakers have been calling for that since the 2020 election. State Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax said reviews of the last presidential election are unneccesary.
“”In a lot of cases, you know, we see claims (of fraud) without really any evidence provided,” he said. “And oftentimes when evidence is provided, it’s not correct.”
Creating More Time to Vote
All bills identified by Oklahoma Watch that would place new voting restrictions or create the post-election audits are sponsored by Republicans.
Nearly all of the bills that expand voting opportunities or make it easier to register to vote are sponsored by Democrats. Several call for more time to cast early absentee ballots before Election Day.
One proposal from Rep. Andy Fugate, D-Del City, would give voters Monday through Friday and the two Saturdays before any election to cast their in-person absentee ballots. Currently voters only have three days (four days for presidential elections) to vote in-person absentee.
“State law requires a certain amount of time to be allocated for somebody to step away from their job to go vote,” Fugate said. “But the reality is if you are a single mom and you’re busy putting food on the table, you need to go vote when it’s convenient for you.”
The proposal is likely to increase the cost for the state and counties to run elections. Fugate said he believes it would be “worth every penny” to give Oklahomans more chances to vote.
Democratic lawmakers also seek to make it easier and quicker for ex-felons to have their voting rights restored, require the state to set up an automatic voter registration process in the next two years and have more in-person voting locations for larger counties.
It has been a challenge to get most any Oklahoma voting bill passed.
An Oklahoma Watch review of recent election-related bills found most failed to get a committee hearing. That trend continued in 2021 with most voting-access bills.
Could School Board Elections Move to November?
Several other proposed bills could change who is on the ballot and how they appear.
At least three proposals from Republican authors would shift Oklahoma from having non-partisan judicial races to requiring candidates to run under a party or independent label. Meanwhile, other proposals would shift county and sheriff races, from partsian to nonpartisan contests.
Various bills attempt to change when elections are held. Specifically, at least two proposals, including one being authored by Treat, would move school board elections to November to coincide with other major races.
Despite concerns from the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, Gov. Kevin Stitt told the Enid News and Eagle last week that he backs that move.
“School board elections have never been more important,” Stitt said while attending the National Governors’ Association winter meeting in Washington, D.C., “Right now, school board elections are held in April like nobody knows about them. Nobody votes in them. So I’m trying to get those moved to the general election timeframe.”
Trevor Brown covered politics, elections, health policies and government accountability issues for Oklahoma Watch. Call or text him at (630) 301-0589. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @tbrownokc