When Kay County voters arrived at their polling place in late August, they were greeted by an urgent sign asking them to step up and become precinct officials.
Election officials in the rural county, home to 44,000 people along the Kansas border, began displaying the notices two years ago when the COVID-19 pandemic prompted many elderly poll workers to sit out. With less than five weeks remaining until the Nov. 8 general election, the need persists.
Some will complete the required training but later decide against working on election day, assistant election board secretary Lacie Holman said. Same-day cancellations due to illness or other circumstances are also common.
“Right now we’re in an okay situation, but it’s always down to the wire,” Holman said.
With five weeks remaining until the Nov. 8 general election, the clock is ticking for county election officials to recruit and train an adequate number of poll workers. Oklahoma Watch spoke with election officials in seven urban and rural counties. Most said they plan to recruit and train poll workers in the days and weeks leading up to election day.
State law requires at least three poll workers to staff every precinct. At larger precincts, a fourth official is often designated to check provisional ballots and keep the line moving.
The effort to find precinct officials comes as threats against election workers are rising and misinformation about election security is spreading at a rapid pace. In Oklahoma, some Republican lawmakers have falsely claimed that widespread fraud cost Trump the 2020 election and filed legislation seeking to restrict when and how voters may cast a ballot.
Speaking with municipal workers late last month, Tulsa County Election Board Secretary Gwen Freeman said the county would need to add 350 to 400 poll workers ahead of the November election to be fully staffed. She said a growing number of poll workers, many of them elderly, are now afraid to work on election day.
Lynn Christophersen has worked as a precinct official in Tulsa County since 2015. She said she enjoys the job and plans to work this November, but believes state and local officials could do more to keep political discussion out of the polling place.
“The political climate has just escalated,” said Christophersen, 74. “When I started, people were respectful and they kept their opinions pretty much to themselves. But there seems to be more willingness to state their opinions and challenge other people, and you just have to ask them to stop.”
Payne County Election Board Secretary Dondee Klein said the county, which includes Stillwater and Oklahoma State University, has lost precinct workers who fear harassment. In training sessions, Klein said election workers have emphasized how to respond to threats or using intimidating language.
“I tell them I don’t want to you be afraid, but be alert and be paying attention,” she said. “The crowds can be difficult, but the crowds can be really nice too, and we try to focus on them.”
Learning to diffuse tense situations is a key part of election worker training in Rogers County, secretary Julie Dermondy said. A common frustrations comes when voters inside a polling place are asked to cover clothing that displays a political message or supports a candidate, she said. Doing so is electioneering, a misdemeanor offense under state law.
To help keep precinct officials out of confrontations, Dermondy said she gives her cell phone number to poll workers and advises them to hand it out if a voter becomes upset.
“Once we explain what the law says and how they can go about trying to get it changed, it kind of takes the heat off of us,” said Dermondy, who oversees elections in the county of 92,000 northeast of Tulsa. “A lot of times they just want someone higher up to listen to their complaints, which I’m happy to do.”
The Political Equation
State law requires two of the three officials at each precinct to be members of the two largest political parties.
In Oklahoma, where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats nearly two-to-one, balancing precincts can be a logistical challenge. For instance, Klein said Payne County has recruited enough Republican poll workers but is still searching for a few more Democrats.
In Bryan County, located along the Red River in Southeastern Oklahoma, Election Board Secretary Kimberly Norris said she reached out to both major political parties for help recruiting more poll workers.
“We’ve gotten a pretty good interest doing that,” she said.
Party affiliation disparities have not been a major factor in Woodward County, where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats nearly 5 to 1. Election Board Secretary Connie Wilcox said all precinct roles for the Nov. 8 election have been filled, though substitute spots remain available.
“We have a great area with a lot of great people out here,” Wilcox said. “They just want to do what they can to help.” (Story Continues Below)
Who’s Signing Up
Elderly Oklahomans have historically stepped up to help keep the state’s election system running smoothly.
In Rogers County, the average poll worker age has hovered around 76 over the past decade, Dermondy said. But she’s noticing a new crop of young voters interested in working on election day.
“Lots of them work from home nowadays, so they can take the day off and work the polls,” she said. “I have probably 10 to 15 poll workers in their 20s or early 30s.”
Civic service and pride are the primary motivators for poll workers like Christophersen, who receive a modest stipend for working a 13 to 14-hour shift. Judges and clerks, who check in voters and distribute ballots, receive $100. Inspectors act as the lead precinct official and earn $110.
Christopherson said the day is tiring but fulfilling for anyone with an interest in the election process.
“More and more people will thank us for being there because they feel strongly about the right to vote here in this country,” she said. “What keeps me doing it is I think it’s really, really important to protect that thing we do that makes us different.”