Presidential rants about the prospects of a “rigged election” and alleged interference with the delivery of mail appear to have heightened the suspicions of voters.
The recent receipt of absentee ballot packets that included already-sealed “secrecy envelopes” reported by Muskogee County voters exacerbated those suspicions. But local election officials rejected the notion that the sealed envelopes were the result of “monkey business” or a conspiracy to invalidate absentee ballots.
An extraordinarily high number of voters plan to cast absentee ballots this year due to ongoing concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated risks to personal and public health. Despite evidence to the contrary, President Donald Trump mounted a campaign intended to cast doubts about the legitimacy of casting ballots by mail.
Muskogee County Election Board Secretary Kelly Beach said the “media hype” that followed seems to be “feeding into a lot of those concerns” voters have about their ballots. Those concerns, he said, were amplified recently when some voters opened absentee ballot packets and discovered the secrecy envelopes inside them were sealed already.
Beach said the envelopes and other materials included in the packets are sent by the Oklahoma State Election Board to county election officials. The ballots, along with instructions, envelopes and other election-related material are packaged locally and sent to voters upon request.
“We sent out more than 1,800 absentee ballots to voters who pre-applied before we even got our ballots,” Beach said. “We were having to slap those packets together — it becomes monotonous and routine — and didn’t even notice this problem with the envelopes.”
Beach said he was unable to determine why the secrecy envelopes were sealed but speculated about the possibility that they were exposed to damp or humid conditions while be transported or stored. The Muskogee County Election Board has storage space in the basement of the County Services Building, which has flooded during periods of heavy rain.
Lee Ann Langston, a former city councilor and local businesswoman, said she was “flabbergasted” when she opened the absentee ballot packet she received this past week. She said her husband discovered the same when he opened the absentee ballot he had requested.
“It definitely looked suspicious,” Langston said. “I was concerned that if I opened it and resealed it before I returned it they might reject it because it was torn, or it had been sealed twice.”
Langston said she reported the sealed envelopes in the packets she and her husband received and learned others had reported similar experiences. She said the problem was believed at the time to be the result of state purchasing practices that require the government to accept the lowest bid in most instances.
Beach said that was his initial thought but learned later from state election officials there had been few reports elsewhere across the state of similar situations. Beach assured voters their absentee ballots will be counted if other criteria are met and they are received before the designated deadlines.
“In a perfect world the secrecy envelope is designed to make it where we can’t match the voter up with the ballot,” Beach said. “They can unseal it and tape it closed, and we will accept it — there is no monkey business.”
Beach said all absentee ballots accompanied by a properly completed affidavit will be counted if they arrive before the deadline — 5 p.m. Nov. 2 if a voter brings it to the county election board or 7 p.m. Nov. 3 if it is mailed. Due to the pandemic voters have the option of attaching a copy of their government-issued identification card instead of providing the notarized affidavit.
The distinctively marked white envelopes are provided for the purpose of maintaining a veil of secrecy as they are removed from a second envelope. Voters typically seal their completed ballots inside the secrecy envelope, which is sealed inside a second envelope that also functions as an affidavit.
The affidavit envelope, which affirms a voter’s eligibility to vote and his or her identity, must be signed and witnessed by a notary public before it is inserted into a third envelope and sent or delivered. The affidavit affirms a voter’s eligibility to vote.
Voters who request a “no excuse standard absentee” ballot will receive a yellow “affidavit envelope.” Those who request “physically incapacitated or caretaker absentee” ballots will receive a pink “affidavit envelope.”
Beach said a voter who requests a standard absentee ballot may hand-deliver his or her ballot to the county election board. Those ballots must be presented by the voter, who must provide valid identification, before 5 p.m. Nov. 2.
Caretakers and voters who request an absentee ballot for the physically incapacitated, must return their ballots by mail, Beach said. Those ballots must be received by 7 p.m. Nov. 3.