Muskogee County Election Board members spent Monday afternoon getting a head start on Election Day, opening and verifying an historic number of absentee ballots mailed by voters. 

Election Board Secretary Kelly Beach said 1,118 ballots were sent to voters in advance of the elections on Tuesday, when they will weigh in on local, state and federal contests. Voters had returned 679 absentee ballots by 1 p.m. Monday, when election board members convened a special meeting to get the ballots ready for Tuesday’s tabulation.

The high number of requests for absentee ballots comes as Oklahoma experiences a resurgence in the number of COVID-19 cases and voters wanting to limit exposure to the novel coronavirus. Requests for absentee ballots preceding the June primary in Muskogee County nearly quadrupled the number requested in 2016, another presidential election year, and nearly tripled what was requested in advance of primary elections of June 2018.

Beach said it appears the rate of return could outpace what he saw in 2016, when 62% of the absentee ballots requested were returned by mail. That rate of return almost had been met Monday afternoon, when 61% of the ballots had been returned, and they will be accepted until precincts close at 7 p.m. Tuesday. 

To deal with the extraordinarily large number of absentee ballots, members of the county election board met Monday and will meet again on Tuesday to open and verify them. He said 14 ballots were rejected Monday because the voters failed to provide the identification or notarization required by law. 

The Oklahoma League of Women Voters claimed victory in May after the Oklahoma Supreme Court struck down a requirement that absentee ballots be notarized. LWV Oklahoma filed its lawsuit in an effort to “save lives” and make it easier for Oklahomans to protect their health while voting. 

Oklahoma lawmakers went to work immediately to undo the decision, amended the law and reinstated the notary requirement for absentee ballots. Lawmakers allowed the use of government-issued photo identification or voter registration cards as alternative forms of verification during national health emergencies.

“What we are hearing from other election boards, where they had even more requests for absentee ballots, is that they are finding copies of driver’s licenses everywhere inside the envelopes,” Beach said, referencing the multiple enclosures inside the outer envelope that arrives with the ballot and other material. “That’s proven to be time-consuming — that’s why we are having the special meeting today and getting those ballots ready to be counted.”

Election Board member Donna Woods said having multiple instructions appeared to be “kind of confusing” for the voters who had returned absentee ballots. She, Beach and election board member Stan Anthis pored through the contents of the outer envelopes in search of the verification — the photo identification, voter registration or notarized statement — necessary to stack the ballots for counting. 

Beach said by the end of the day 14 were rejected. 

Precincts will open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. today. 

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