Despite Growth, County Officials Resist Efforts to Expand Early Voting

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Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch

Voters enter the McClain County Election Board building in Purcell on Friday, Nov. 2, the second day of early voting.

As the popularity of early voting continues to rise, some lawmakers are reviving a plan to make it easier for Oklahomans to vote.

But they will likely run into continued resistance that has given Oklahoma the shortest in-person early-voting period among the many states that allow early voting.

Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, said Senate Democrats are preparing legislation that would extend the time voters have to cast ballots through the in-person absentee option.

Oklahoma currently has the shortest early voting period of the 37 states that offer early voting. State law allows voters to cast in-person absentee ballots on three days before Election Day: from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Thursday and Friday and 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday.

Other states provide up to 45 days to vote at an election or satellite polling place. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the average early-voting period for the states that allow it is 19 days.

Details of Floyd’s proposal are still being worked out, including whether it will mirror a bill that failed earlier this year that would simply extend early voting by three hours on Saturday or be a more substantial measure by increasing the number of days for voters to visit their polling locations.

Floyd said any progress on making voting more convenient is a worthwhile effort.

“I think it should be a priority,” she said. “I think making it easier to vote is in everyone’s best interests. Why wouldn’t we try to keep people form being able to vote by making it as convenient as possible?”

Attempts to bring Oklahoma more in line with many other states have failed in recent years. That includes a 2009 attempt by then-Gov. Brad Henry to move to a seven-day early voting period and a 2015 proposal by former Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, to extend early voting by one day and add hours on the Saturday before the election.

Both proposals failed to get a floor vote in the Legislature.

Despite the growing popularity of early voting, proposals to extend early voting times have faced opposition from many county election officials concerned about costs and logistics.

The costs of offering early voting days vary by county.

Oklahoma County Election Board Secretary Doug Sanderson said the current three-day voting period costs the state’s most populous county about $25,000 per election. That puts the price tag at $75,000, or nearly 5 percent of the Election Board’s $1.4 million annual budget, for an election season with a primary, runoff and general election.

Although counties receive support, such as equipment, maintenance and supplies, from the State Election Board, counties are responsible for their election board’s salaries and election-related operations.

Sanderson said that money covers wages for the in-person election board, mileage reimbursement for the workers, compensation for technicians and fees for the county’s satellite polling stations.

“It takes absolutely every resource to pull off those early voting days because you are essentially talking about a polling place for 400,000 (registered voters),” he said.

Tulsa County Election Board Assistant Secretary Martha Bales said her county’s cost is similar to Oklahoma County’s, with a $8,300-per-day price tag.

“And that doesn’t include equipment that we might have to replace or anything like that,” she said.

Even if the state decided to foot the bill, election officials said there would still be challenges.

Sanderson said in the days leading up to an election, his full-time staff of 15 is strapped for time preparing for Election Day and processing absentee mail ballots.

Even extending the hours on the Saturday before the election could jeopardize the election board’s other functions, Sanderson said.

“You need to give election boards adequate time to prepare for elections,” he said. “And when you start to squeeze down that time, the more difficult it is.”

Sanderson said he believes the current three-day early-voting period doesn’t need to be extended. With those days and the availability of absentee ballots mailed out about a month before an election, voters have enough opportunities if they can’t or don’t want to vote on Election Day, he said.

Alyson Dawson, secretary of the Payne County Election Board, said smaller counties might also struggle if the state requires a longer early-voting period. She said her county likely would need to hire and train more staff members.

“For state and federal general elections, we barely have enough time to prepare for Election Day as it is,” she said. “On days of early voting, all we do is process voters and try to answer the phone. There is no time to do anything else.”

Some community leaders favor extending early voting to increase Oklahoma’s lower-than-average turnout rates.

Last year the Oklahoma Academy, a nonprofit public-policy group, held a series of town hall events across the state to explore ways to get more Oklahomans to vote. In a 2017 report to lawmakers, they suggested adding more early voting days, including the Monday before Election Day.

There are conflicting reports about whether early voting translates into higher voter turnout.

A 2009 report for the Pew Center on the States that looked at three decades of voting across the nation found that states with a long early-voting period saw a long-term increase in turnout of about three percentage points. But a 2013 study by University of Wisconsin researchers concluded that early voting actually decreases turnout because it reduces the “civic significance” of Election Day.

What is known is that more voters are choosing to vote early when it’s available.

Data from the U.S. Election Project shows that in 2016, nearly 35 percent of all votes across the country were cast before Election Day through in-person or mail absentee ballots. That is up from just below 20 percent in 2006 and about 10 percent in 1996.

The trend is also happening in Oklahoma, although traditional Election Day voters make up a larger proportion of the electorate here.

More than 107,000 Oklahomans, or nearly one in 10 voters, took advantage of Oklahoma’s in-person absentee voting period during this year’s general election.

That’s an increase over the last midterm election in 2014, when about 43,800 voters, or 5.8 percent of the electorate, voted in person before Election Day

Early voting also saw a jump in the last presidential-year elections. In 2016, 10.5 percent of all votes in Oklahoma came from in-person early voters, compared with about 8 percent in 2012.

Floyd said this shows a demand for early voting in Oklahoma. While the cost of adding hours or days is something to consider, she said the need is clear.

“If we have the money to spend, I think we should do everything we can to make it easier to vote,” she said. “If people want to be involved in the process, let’s make that work for them.”