Despite a legal challenge and opposition from prominent Democrats, voters will decide this November whether to add more scrutiny to the electoral process.
If approved, State Question 746 would require residents to show a valid photo identification card or voter card before they can cast their ballot.
Those without the proper documentation still can vote; however, they must sign a sworn statement and use a provisional ballot that is counted later.
Rep. George Faught, R-Muskogee, who was a supporter of the 2009 legislation that put the state question on the ballot, said requiring proper identification provides an extra safeguard for ensuring a fair and accurate election.
“This is to make sure the voting process is not thwarted by someone claiming to be someone they are not or if they are not a registered citizen,” he said. “Even if you go to Walmart and write a check, you have to show some ID.”
However, several Democrats and special interest groups have come out against the proposal by saying it is unnecessary. Karen Melcher with the Stillwater League of Women Voters said even with the ability to cast a provisional ballot without identification, voters could stay home on Election Day if they are confused or afraid of the new policies.
“Voter ID more affects the disadvantaged, minority groups, the poor and other people who don’t tend to (regularly vote),” said Melcher, who is the state organization’s voter services chairwoman. “So just a little bit of discouragement could keep people from voting.”
Opposition on legal grounds
James C. Thomas, a Tulsa attorney and professor at the University of Tulsa College of Law, is representing a Tulsa resident in an attempt to block the state question on the grounds that it is unconstitutional.
“There is a specific provision in the (state) Constitution that says ‘no power, civil or military, shall interfere to prevent the free exercise of the right of suffrage,’” he said. “And requiring voters to show an identification before is interference and to that extent it conflicts with our Constitution.”
A Sept. 17 Tulsa County district court hearing is scheduled to consider the request to pre-emptively stop the state question. While acknowledging he has an “uphill battle,” Thomas said, win or lose, the case might have to be decided after the election at the state Supreme Court level.
Although opponents of the proposal argue it could dissuade some residents from voting if they fear they don’t have the documentation on them, Faught said he rejects that argument because they can still cast a provisional ballot.
Supporters also point out that requiring identification is not uncommon, and more than half of all states have some type of extra identification requirements.
According to the National Council of State Legislatures, 26 states have adopted stricter voter identification requirements than the federal law, which requires first-time voters who registered by mail to show identification.
Of those 26 states, eight specifically request or require a photo identification.
Oklahoma State Board of Elections Secretary Paul Ziriax said he estimates it would cost the state between $50,000 and $100,000 annually if the state question were to be passed.
Ziriax said the additional money might be needed to assist some precincts that could need more assistance to check the identifications and work with the provisional ballots.
For those that use a provisional ballot, Ziriax said the votes are counted after being verified a few days after the election and typically after the election already has been unofficially called for a candidate.
He said any extra time it would take to check and tally the provisional votes likely would be negligible, and he pointed out there has not been any problems in checking the provisional ballots in the past.
With the exception of some recent allegations regarding absentee voting, Ziriax said voter fraud has not been a major problem in the state any time recently. However, he said the extra rules could add assurances for those that worry about the process.
“My guess is that the voter ID (measure) would provide extra comfort and extra confidence to voters so that they know their votes are secure,” he said.
Although Faught also acknowledged that there has not been a rash of voter fraud problems, he said the policy is a common-sense idea that could thwart any attempts in the future.
“It does nothing to prohibit you from voting,” he said. “It’s just reinforcing the integrity of the election process.”
Creating the state question
Before the legislature passed the measure last year to put the proposal on the ballot, lawmakers unsuccessfully tried to pass the bill on their own.
Despite passing the bill in the House and Senate, the bill died when Gov. Brad Henry vetoed the measure.
At the time, Henry said the state already has a model state election system and the new requirements would add confusion for electoral workers and voters.
“At a time when it is difficult to attract more than half of the registered voters to the polls at any given election, we must make voting easier and more convenient for registered voters, not more difficult and confusing,” he said in his veto message.
After the initial bill failed, lawmakers then passed similar legislation that sent the vote to the people through the state question.
The House of Representatives passed that legislation with a 69-to-30 vote and the Senate passed it with a 25-to-21 vote.
Trevor Brown cover the Oklahoma statehouse for CNHI and The Moore American. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.