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In the midst of a pandemic, Tuesday's election sure to be different

With the social and economic turmoil accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic, the recent protests centered on racial injustice and last weekend’s visit to Tulsa by President Donald Trump, the upcoming state and local elections may have slipped the minds of many.

But Tuesday, Oklahomans will vote on an important state question and a host of local offices and primaries that arguably make this election as important as the one in November.

At the top of the ballot is State Question 802, which would mandate expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. There are also Republican and Democratic U.S. Senate primaries, primaries in most congressional districts and a slew of legislative, county and school board elections.

Still, it’s not so much the substance of the election that makes this one unusual as it is the circumstances. Election officials throughout the state have had to be innovative and in some cases persistent in order to pull it off at something close to normal.

For Tulsa County Election Board officials and employees, it’s meant hundreds — if not thousands of telephone calls — to locate and confirm polling locations, find and train scores of new poll workers, process thousands of absentee ballot requests and completely rethink the voting process in light of the COVID-19 threat.

All of that work, multiplied by the state’s 77 counties, means Oklahoma will not have the severe cutback in the number of polling places that voters in other states have seen.

Last week, for instance, every voter in Louisville, Kentucky, cast their ballot in one location — a huge exhibition hall at the fairgrounds.

While that went more smoothly than similar arrangements in Wisconsin and Georgia, there were still concerns that the arrangement prevented some people from voting because they lacked transportation or were worried about being in such a large group.

Although Oklahoma polling locations have not been consolidated to a great extent, some have moved. And in some cases, as has been the case in the past, two precincts share a location.

That includes about 30 locations in Tulsa County.

Voters whose precincts have been relocated were notified by mail in which they received an updated registration card with the polling location on it. Nevertheless, officials say it’s a good idea for those with internet access to check online through the Oklahoma State Election Board’s Voter Portal, https://okvoterportal.okelections.us/.

Those without internet access may call their local election board.

Tulsa County officials initially thought even more polling places would have to be moved, but managed to convince more than 50 sites worried about COVID-19 that their facilities would be left free of the deadly virus.

To do that, the election board is taking unusual steps such as outfitting all poll workers in protective garb, employing extensive cleaning procedures and sanitizing or throwing away items such as pens.

Voters are also being asked to wear masks and will be required to observe social distancing.

Tulsa County Election Board Secretary Gwen Freeman said at midweek that her office has had to recruit about 200 new poll workers to replace experienced veterans, many of them in the most vulnerable older population, who dropped out because of health concerns.

“There have been a ton of new people who have stepped up,” Freeman said. “It’s been a wonderful thing to see.”

More workers than usual are needed for this election because some will be assigned to keeping the voting area clean and enforcing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines regarding COVID-19.

It is expected that additional people also will be needed to process absentee ballots. The Tulsa County Election Board staff worked from 7 a.m. Tuesday until 1:30 a.m. Wednesday mailing out all of the 30,721 absentee ballots requested.

That’s 4½ times more than were requested in 2016, the last presidential year primary. Statewide, some 141,000 absentee ballots were requested.

Unlike many states, mailed Oklahoma absentee ballots must be received by the election board no later than 7 p.m. on the day of the election. Postmarks do not count.

Oklahoma also requires absentee ballots be counted the day of the election. So while results may be a little later than usual, they should be finalized by the wee hours of Wednesday morning.

Freeman said she has no idea what election day turnout will be, but advised voters to expect things to take a little longer than usual Tuesday because of the COVID-19 measures and the large number of inexperienced poll workers.

“One thing I’m hoping is that everyone will be patient with them,” she said.

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Voters to weigh in on State Question 802 which would expand Medicaid coverage

Voters will go to the polls Tuesday to decide on a constitutional amendment that asks whether the state should expand Medicaid to cover more lower-income workers.

Backers of State Question 802 say the measure is needed to provide health insurance coverage to low-income households who cannot afford private health insurance and make too much to qualify for government-subsidized coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

“It’s going to allow Oklahoma voters a chance to decide an issue that politicians have failed to do for the last decade,” said Amber England, campaign chairwoman for the pro-SQ 802 effort.

Opponents say the state can’t afford to take on the added state expense required by the program, especially as the state grapples with budget problems caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and depressed energy prices.

“Our biggest concern with this state question and the Medicaid expansion piece as a whole is cost,” said John Tidwell, chairman of Vote No On 802 Association and director of Americans for Prosperity’s Oklahoma affiliate.

England said approval of the measure will lower the number of Oklahomans without health insurance coverage.

Oklahoma currently ranks No. 2 nationally in the percentage of the population without health insurance.

An estimated 14.2% of Oklahomans, or 548,316 individuals, didn’t have health insurance in the state when surveyed for the 2018 U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey of households.

Nationally, 8.9% of the population didn’t have health insurance in 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey.

“This population that falls in the coverage gap are hardworking Oklahomans who may be already working two or three jobs to make ends meet,” England said. “Many are deemed essential employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Expanding Medicaid will also help “near retirees” who aren’t quite old enough for Medicare, but make a little too much money for traditional Medicaid, England said.

Primarily though, Medicaid expansion would help working Oklahomans in low-wage jobs whose employers don’t provide health insurance, England said.

“They don’t make enough money to go out and buy insurance on their own,” she said. “That’s why so many people living in Oklahoma are just one illness away from bankruptcy.”

If approved, low-income households earning 133% or less than the federal poverty line would be eligible for government subsidized Medicaid coverage with the state picking up 10% of the cost and the federal government paying the balance.

Under 2019 poverty guidelines, expanded Medicaid coverage would provide health insurance to a single adult making less than $17,236 annually, or adults in a family of four making less than $35,535 annually.

Currently, 36 states and Washington, D.C., have expanded Medicaid coverage.

Neighboring states that haven’t expanded Medicaid include Texas, Missouri and Kansas, while those that have expanded include Arkansas, Colorado and New Mexico.

In October, proponents of expanding Medicaid turned in 313,000 signatures — well in excess of the 178,000 needed — to land the question on a 2020 ballot.

Gov. Kevin Stitt, who opposes the measure, opted in April to place the state question on the June primary ballot.

Stitt claims the measure would result in tax hikes, budget cuts and state service reductions. Stitt said Thursday that he estimates expanding coverage would cost the state between $164 million and $200 million.

Stitt vetoed a funding bill this year for his own SoonerCare 2.0 Medicare expansion program. In his written veto message, Stitt explained that since he had proposed the measure, the unemployment rate in the state had increased from 3.2% to more than 14% due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This will not only increase the number of individuals currently enrolled in Medicaid, but will also increase the number of potential enrollees in the expanded population,” he wrote. “Furthermore, Senate Bill 1046 does not fully fund SoonerCare 2.0 in year one, and it does not consider funding for year two.”

By writing the extension into the Constitution, it also “handcuffs” the state should the federal government opt to change the program in the future, Stitt said.

“The only way to pay for that is to reduce services for other agencies — education, transportation — or to raise taxes,” Stitt said.

Asked about the cost to the state to expand Medicaid, England said she agreed with the $164 million annual estimate from the Oklahoma Healthcare Authority, which administers SoonerCare, the state’s Medicaid program.

“The cost right now for doing nothing is $1 billion a year that we are wastefully leaving on the table in Washington, D.C.,” England said.

“Over time what we know is Medicaid expansion practically pays for itself because of the economic impact that we are having just not only of the $1 billion that we are bringing home, but all of the economic activity that we are able to generate in these local economies when we are creating jobs and the spinoff effect of that,” England said.

Tidwell, meanwhile, echoed Stitt’s budget concerns should the measure pass.

“We believe that number will be a lot higher than $200 million,” Tidwell said.

“With a minimum cost of $200 million as we’re facing a $1.4 billion budget shortfall next year, that has a catastrophic effect on our state budget,” Tidwell said. “Passage of State Question 802 will result in tax increases and budget cuts to core services such as education, roads and bridges, first responders ... things we can lose.”

England discounted the claims Medicaid expansion would have catastrophic effects on the state budget.

“I’m just not surprised the opposition is throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks,” England said. “These are the same organizations that have fought Medicaid expansion for years.

“What we know is that 36 other states have expanded Medicaid, none of them have said, ‘We don’t want to do this anymore because it’s not a good deal for us,’ ” England said.

In another campaign development, England rejected claims from the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs that the pro-SQ 802 group had failed to file required campaign expense and contribution reports.

England said the Yes on State Question 802 — Oklahomans Decide Healthcare political action committee has filed all required disclosure reports. Due to the timing of Stitt setting the election, England said the deadline for the PAC to file its first comprehensive report isn’t until after the election.

Asked why not disclose spending and contributions anyway in the spirit of transparency, England replied that the group was following Ethics Commission rules.

The measure is backed by the Oklahoma Hospital Association, the Oklahoma Educational Association, Oklahoma Conference of Churches, Oklahoma Nurses Association, Oklahoma Academy of Family Physicians, Oklahoma State Medical Association, the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, the Tulsa Regional Chamber and the State Chamber of Oklahoma.

In addition to the OCPA and Americans for Prosperity, the 1889 Institute is counted among those opposing the Medicaid expansion measure.

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As cases surge in US, rural areas seeing increases as well

For many states and counties in the U.S., the dark days of the coronavirus pandemic in April unfolded on their television screens, not on their doorsteps. But now, some places that appeared to have avoided the worst are seeing surges of infections, as worries shift from major cities to rural areas.

While much of the focus of concerns that the United States is entering a dangerous new phase has been on big Sunbelt states that are reporting thousands of new cases a day — like Texas and Florida — the worrying trend is also happening in places like Kansas, where livestock outnumber people.

In early June, Kansas looked to be bringing its outbreak under control, but its daily reported case numbers have more than doubled in recent weeks. On June 5, the seven-day average for daily new cases hovered at around 96; by Friday, that figure was 211. As cases rise, the U.S. Army commander at Fort Riley in the state’s northeast ordered his soldiers to stay out of a popular nearby restaurant and bar district after 10 p.m.

Idaho and Oklahoma have seen similarly large percentage increases over the same three-week period, albeit from low starting points. In Oklahoma, the seven-day average for daily new cases climbed from about 81 to 376; Idaho’s jumped from around 40 to 160.

Many rural counties in states including California, Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, Texas and Florida have seen their confirmed cases more than double in a week, from June 19 to Friday, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Lassen County, California, went from just nine cases to 172, and Hot Spring County, Arkansas, went from 46 cases to 415; both spikes were attributed to outbreaks at prisons. Cases in McDonald County, Missouri, more than tripled after Tyson Foods conducted facility-wide testing at a chicken plant there.

Missouri itself is seeing a worrying trend, and Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas ordered employees and patrons of businesses to wear masks, when 6 feet of separation isn’t possible.

“Case numbers in Kansas City continue to rise, and we are taking all steps we can to ensure public health and safety,” the Democrat said Friday.

Across the state line, Kansas City, Kansas, and the county it’s in also decided to order masks be worn in public starting Tuesday.

But many politicians, even those in place with spiking cases, have been hesitant to issue such orders, as subject has become a political lightning rod, with Democrats more likely than Republicans to use them.

The daily number of confirmed infections in the U.S. surged to an all-time high of 45,300 on Friday, eclipsing the high of 40,000 set the previous day, according to Johns Hopkins.

The biggest spikes have been seen in the West and South. On Saturday, as officials announced that Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Florida would not include a planned bus tour, state health officials reported more than 9,500 new cases. That total eclipsed the previous day’s by more than 600.

Florida and Texas have both recently pulled back on their reopening plans in response to increasing cases. Nevada, meanwhile, reported Saturday that there were nearly 1,100 new confirmed cases in one day, a total that is nearly double the state’s previous single-day record.

While the rise in the U.S. partly reflects expanded testing, experts say there is ample evidence the scourge is making a comeback, including rising deaths and hospitalizations in parts of the country and higher percentages of virus tests coming back positive.

Deaths are running at about 600 per day, down from a peak of around 2,200 in mid-April. Some experts have expressed doubt that deaths will return to that level because of advances in treatment and because many infections are happening in younger adults, who are more likely than older ones to survive.

The virus is blamed for more than 125,000 deaths and nearly 2.5 million confirmed infections in the U.S., by Johns Hopkins’ count. But health officials believe the true number of infections is about 10 times higher. Worldwide, the virus has claimed close to a half-million lives with nearly 10 million cases.

The resurgence in the U.S. has drawn concern from abroad. The European Union seems almost certain to bar Americans in the short term from entering the bloc, which is currently drawing up new travel rules, EU diplomats confirmed Saturday.

But the U.S. is not alone. German Chancellor Angela Merkel cautioned Saturday that the coronavirus pandemic is far from over. India reported more than 18,000 new cases, pushing its cumulative total over the half-million mark, the fourth highest globally behind the U.S., Brazil and Russia.

“The risk posed by the virus is still serious,” Merkel said. “It’s easy to forget because Germany has gotten through the crisis well so far, but that doesn’t mean we are protected.”

Elsewhere, Egypt and Britain said they would ease virus controls, while China and South Korea battled smaller outbreaks in their capitals.

Britain was expected to scrap a 14-day quarantine requirement for people returning from abroad in a bid to make summer vacation travel possible. Only travelers from “red’’ zones, places with a high level of COVID-19, will be told to self-isolate.

Egypt on Saturday lifted many restrictions put in place against the coronavirus pandemic, reopening cafes, clubs, gyms and theaters after more than three months of closure, despite a continued upward trend in new infections.

Authorities in other countries were taking a more cautious approach, with the Indian city of Gauhati, the capital of Assam state, announcing a new two-week lockdown starting Monday, with night curfews and weekend lockdowns in the rest of the state.

China saw an uptick in cases, one day after authorities said they expect an outbreak in Beijing to be brought under control in the near future. The National Health Commission reported 17 new cases in the nation’s capital, the most in a week, among 21 nationwide.

South Korea, where a resurgence in the past month threatens to erase the country’s earlier success, reported 51 new cases, including 35 in the Seoul metropolitan area.

Tulsa's economic future to be topic of next 'Let's Talk' virtual town hall

Tulsa Metro Chamber leaders will be the guests for the next Tulsa World “Let’s Talk” virtual town hall.

Chamber President and CEO Mike Neal; Chairman Roger Ramseyer, vice president and Tulsa market leader for Cox Communications; and William Murphy, the chamber’s senior vice president of economic development, will take reader questions about Tulsa’s economic future.

The “Let’s Talk” virtual town hall series is sponsored by the George Kaiser Family Foundation. The conversation is moderated by Wayne Greene, editor of editorial pages for Tulsa World.

Questions for the event can be submitted to wayne.greene@tulsaworld.com before 10 a.m. Tuesday.

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