The reopening of Oklahoma’s economy has brought thousands of people back into stores and workplaces, many of whom are choosing not to wear face masks or bother with social distancing.
A question on the minds of election officials is whether a similar scenario will play out when thousands of voters head for the polls Tuesday for the primary election, raising the risk of spreading the deadly coronavirus.
Although the state election board is strongly encouraging poll workers and voters to wear masks and keep at least six feet of distance from others, there is no state or local requirement that voters comply. There is also no state requirement that local precinct workers use its recommended safety protocols for in-person voting.
However, many county election officials will likely require their precinct workers to wear protective gear, maintain distance from each other and voters, and practice other safety measures.
Some counties also plan to monitor behavior of voters standing in line and, if necessary, politely suggest they move farther apart. Some precincts will offer hand sanitizer to voters, but won’t be handing out or requiring face masks.
“We’re just precinct election officials,” said Doug Sanderson, Oklahoma County election board secretary. “We don’t have any authority to enforce the law.”
The uncertainty over COVID-19 risks has Oklahoma election boards grappling with how to safely deliver a basic right of democracy. Many poll workers are retired and older – a demographic more vulnerable to the disease – and many workers who happily signed up in past years are refusing to participate this year for fear of catching the virus.
Gwen Freeman, Tulsa County Election Board secretary, referring to efforts to recruit more poll workers.
Sanderson said that while Oklahoma County is always looking for poll workers, COVID-19 has made the search harder. Its regular pool of workers is fairly large, but many are in a high-risk demographic for the virus, he said.
“Just having to open the polls, it’s not going to be under the best of circumstances, but we’ll get it done one way or another,” Sanderson said.
The Tulsa County Election Board has partnered with the county to allow employees, such as county clerks and park officials, to work the precincts. The average age of the county’s usual precinct worker is 75, said Gwen Freeman, Tulsa County Election Board secretary. The election board is searching for young people who are less immunocompromised to work the polls. It is looking for workers using social media, interviews and civic organizations.
“We’re putting the plea out in every way we can,” Freeman said.
In the meantime, a larger number of voters have requested absentee ballots, wanting to avoid the polls.
Road Map for Safety
The state election board has developed safety protocols with the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center aimed at mitigating the risk that COVID-19 poses to precinct officials and voters.
Among the guidelines:
Voters should stand six feet from the poll workers’ table to limit direct contact. Voting booths should be six feet apart, if there’s enough space. If not, voters should to be directed to use every other booth.
Poll workers should be at least six feet apart and six feet from voting machines, if possible. The voting equipment should be wiped down with alcohol wipes before and after the machines are started.
Workers should wash their hands or use sanitizer throughout the day and avoid contact with voters as much as possible. The state election board said it provided masks and strongly recommends poll workers wear them. It also provided eye protection and gloves.
Voters should wear masks and should be encouraged to stay six feet from each other.
The state’s guidelines, however, are just that — guidelines. While counties and voters may choose to follow safety precautions, they don’t have to.
Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.