Oklahoma relies on thousands of poll workers to keep its election system running smoothly.
These temporary employees spend election days checking in voters, distributing ballots and ensuring that 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 fears of harassment or intimidation.
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A March 2022 study by the Brennan Center for Justice found that threats against election officials, prompted by false claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election, are increasing.
Early in October, Tulsa County Election Board officials warned that 350 to 400 workers were still needed to be able to staff and provide backup for the November elections. In August, about three dozen poll workers didn’t show up on Election Day for one reason or another, according to Tulsa County Election Board officials.
And that was just part of the problem. More and more of the longtime, dedicated workers — many of whom are older — are too afraid they will be harassed to continue working.
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.
Kim Barrett, 53, of Guthrie has been a poll worker for 13 years. A longtime high school history teacher, she schedules personal time off to ensure that she can work the polls.
“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.
Jeff Mohr, 60, said he changed his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat to benefit the Beckham County Election Board. State law requires that at least one member of each of the two largest political parties staff every precinct, and Mohr said rural county voters need legislators to loosen that statute.
“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.
Kaley Mills, 31, 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.”
She was assigned to a rural precinct in Logan County, where she worked the June 28 primary and Aug. 23 runoff. She said the experience gave 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.”
Peyton and Jody King, a Yukon couple in their late 20s, have worked elections in Canadian County for the past few years.
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,” he said. “I was just volunteering my time, not expecting any compensation.”
Now working in state government, he described the job as interesting and fulfilling.
“If (state government or private employers) 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.
Peyton King 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,” she said.