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Oklahoma elections threatened by U.S. House bill, state's top election official warns

Paul Ziriax, secretary of the Oklahoma State Election Board, speaks during a press conference on June 5, 2020 in Oklahoma City.  [Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman]
Paul Ziriax, secretary of the Oklahoma State Election Board, speaks during a press conference on June 5, 2020 in Oklahoma City. [Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman]

A U.S. House bill to make voting easier would amount to a federal takeover of state elections and deprive Oklahoma of ways to detect fraud, according to Oklahoma’s top election official.

“This legislation takes direct aim at Oklahoma's existing election integrity laws, making it virtually impossible for election officials to verify the identity of in-person and mail absentee voters, requiring states to allow untrackable absentee ballot harvesting, mandating voter registration by telephone, and making it nearly impossible to prevent double voting by allowing voters to vote anywhere in the state whether they are registered to vote at that location or not,” Oklahoma Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax said in a letter to members of Oklahoma’s congressional delegation.

The bill, similar to one approved by the House but not considered by the Senate two years ago, is expected to come up for a vote this week.

The White House on Monday endorsed the bill, saying it “contains a number of provisions to protect the fundamental right to vote and make it more equitable and accessible for all Americans to exercise that right. H.R. 1 would reform redistricting to curtail the gerrymandering that distorts our democracy, and would modernize our elections and make them more secure.

"Consistent with the Administration’s commitment to racial equity, the bill would also expand the tools available to the Justice Department to enforce the voting rights of all Americans.”

The legislation would also mandate disclosure of some “dark money” contributions and establish a public finance option for campaigns. And states would be required to "adopt independent redistricting commissions" to draw legislative and congressional district boundaries.

For elections, the bill would require: voter registration on the same day as a federal election; online registration, cancellation and party changes; no restrictions on voting by mail; the use of affidavits instead of photo identification; the use of paper ballots; at least 15 consecutive days of early voting; and several other changes.

Ziriax, who has been Oklahoma’s election board secretary since 2009, said the bill would “supersede most of Oklahoma's election administration and election integrity laws, making our elections less secure, more complicated to administer, and much more expensive to conduct.”

He said it would take years to implement some of the changes but that the bill requires them for the 2022 elections. He predicted many of the provisions would wind up being challenged in court.

In a meeting of the House Rules Committee on Monday, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said the bill “will lower barriers to voting for all eligible Americans, save costs and bolster the integrity of election administration. For example, it will modernize voter registration systems by implementing online voter registration, automatic voter registration and same-day voter registration. ... Automatic voter registration alone may bring up to 50 million new eligible voters onto the rolls.”

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, said the bill was written to protect the Democratic majority in Congress.

“At each turn, this bill is designed to rewrite the current rules of our elections in a way that benefits Democrats,” said Cole, the top Republican on the Rules Committee.

“It changes voting laws, election laws and campaign finance laws. It imposes from Washington, D.C., a one-size-fits-all regulatory scheme on each state, and what’s worse, it does this even though states have traditionally been allowed to generally run elections however they see fit.”

Chris Casteel

Chris Casteel began working for The Oklahoman's Norman bureau in 1982 while a student at the University of Oklahoma. Casteel covered the police beat, federal courts and the state Legislature in Oklahoma City. From 1990 through 2016, he was the... Read more ›