Oklahoma relies on thousands of poll workers to keep its election system running smoothly.
These temporary employees spend election day checking in voters, distributing ballots and ensuring voting equipment is functioning properly. County election boards are tasked with recruiting and training precinct officials while the state foots most of the bill for poll worker stipends.
State election officials have long warned of a looming crisis if more people don’t sign up to become poll workers. In some counties, already challenging recruitment efforts have been complicated by longtime precinct officials leaving the job due to increasing fear of harassment or intimidation. A March 2022 study by the Brennan Center for Justice found threats against election officials, prompted by false claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election, are increasing.
Oklahoma Watch spoke with five precinct officials about their motivation for working the polls and what state officials could do to better support local elections. Here are their stories:
Experience: 13 years
A longtime high school history teacher, Barrett schedules personal time off to ensure she can work polls.
Election day starts around 5:45 a.m. when she inspects the voting machine and ensures that ballots are ready to distribute. Barring the unforeseen, she’ll be headed home about 15 hours later.
Barrett said she’s intrinsically motivated to work the long day, realizing her effort has a direct benefit for democracy.
“If we don’t continue to have free elections and people who are there to run them and maintain the integrity of them, our government and country would fall into a certain place we don’t care to go,” Barrett said.
She said it also serves as an example of civic engagement for her students, many of whom are 17 or 18 years old.
“It makes it a little easier to tell our kids what we expect from them when we do it ourselves,” Barrett said.
Location: Logan County
Mills, a legislative assistant for State Reps. John Talley, R-Stillwater, and Randy Randleman, R-Eufaula, said a series of phone calls from frustrated constituents prompted her to become a precinct official.
“They called and said they had to drive all the way to the next town over just to cast their vote, and they were wanting to know why,” Mills said. “I did some checking and I was told they had to consolidate precincts because they just simply did not have enough people to work the polls. That’s what made me decide I want to do this and help in this way.”
Assigned to a rural precinct, Mills worked the June 28 primary and Aug. 23 runoff. She said the experience has given her an inside view into how the state counts and validates ballots.
“We hear from people fairly regularly who are concerned about the security of our elections,” she said. “Now when someone calls the office and brings that up, I can say I’ve been a poll worker and this is actually how we do that part of the process. It’s very secure and I can tell you that firsthand.”
Location: Beckham County
Experience: Four years
Election day in Sweetwater, located three miles east of the Texas border in far western Oklahoma, is generally a relaxed affair. About 30 people voted in person on the Aug. 23 runoff, said Mohr, who has worked as a precinct official there since 2018.
While the crowds aren’t overwhelming, finding enough workers to staff every rural precinct can be challenging. Most Beckham County election officials are elderly and retired, Mohr said.
“Maybe at some point, they’re going to have to go to the county courthouses, and you’ll be randomly called up to be an election worker like you’re called up for jury duty,” he said.
Mohr, who said he changed his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat to benefit the county election board, said state lawmakers may need to consider loosening the party affiliation requirement for precinct officials.
State law requires at least one member from each of the two largest political parties to staff every precinct. In Beckham County, Republicans outnumber Democrats nearly 3 to 1, according to the most recent state voter registration report.
Jody and Peyton King
Ages: 27 and 26
Location: Canadian County
Experience: Two years; four months
Interested in the electoral process and public service, Jody King signed up to become a poll worker while pursuing a political science degree at the University of Oklahoma.
The $100 check he received following election day was an added bonus.
“I had no idea that state law dictates precinct officials should be paid,” Jody King said. “I was just volunteering my time not expecting any compensation. For a college student, that’s something that helps out a little bit.”
Now living in Yukon and working in state government, Jody King described the job as interesting and fulfilling. He believes more young people could be persuaded to work the polls if employers made it easier to get away for a day.
“If they [state government or private businesses] just said you can have a full day to go be a precinct official, that would inspire a whole new group of people to go out and serve their community,” he said.
King’s wife, Peyton, also works in state government. She worked her first election in June. She said some voters have tried to discuss political matters inside the voting area, but thus far tensions haven’t escalated when those conversations are shut down.
State and local election officials could be doing a better job reaching out to young voters about working the polls, she said.
“It’s not very common knowledge that this is something you can do,” Peyton King said. “Maybe talking to senior classes in high school or college students who are interested in public service would help.”
Keaton Ross is a Report for America corps member who covers democracy for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at (405) 831-9753 or Kross@Oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter at @_KeatonRoss.