In many ways, Tulsa County’s first major election in the age of COVID-19 was just like any other.
Peaceful, orderly and a nice reminder that there are plenty of people who take the act of casting a ballot seriously. Especially in deadly serious times.
“It is our civic responsibility to vote,” Jenniffer Callaway said after casting her ballot at a library off of Peoria Avenue on Tuesday morning.
Curtis Griggs expressed a similar sentiment nearly 10 hours later at his polling station at the W.L. Hutcherson YMCA in north Tulsa. He purposely arrived at the polling station about 6:30 p.m. to miss the dinner-hour rush.
“As far as the civic duty, no, it (voting in person) wasn’t a concern,” said Griggs, who was wearing a mask. “And the fact that I didn’t register for absentee voting, it was a must.”
Tulsa County’s first election during a pandemic was like any other election in another way — things didn’t go perfectly.
A few voting machines malfunctioned. A precinct captain slept in, leaving voters waiting in line. Poll workers arrived at a polling station only to find it locked.
“When you have 700-something or 800 people out in the field, there is always going to be something with one or more of your precinct officials or the precinct locations,” said Gwen Freeman, secretary of the Tulsa County Election Board. “So there are always the early-morning issues that plague you at first no matter the size of the election.”
More than 200 of the precinct workers were doing the job for the first time Tuesday.
“What a lot of people don’t understand is: Without those precinct officials, we can’t hold an election,” Freeman said. “They were fully aware of the dangers of this virus, and they chose to be out there and open the polls so people would have an opportunity to vote. That has been a very humbling and touching thing for me.”
Precinct workers were required to wear personal protective equipment. They were given the option to wear masks and goggles, but many chose to wear protective face shields.
“They started going to the shield because people could hear them better and they felt like they could breathe better,” Freeman said.
Voters were not required to wear masks at polling stations, but that message didn’t make it to everyone Tuesday. At a polling station inside a church, a church worker instructed people entering the building that they had to wear a mask.
“We are not going to stop you from voting because you don’t wear a mask,” Freeman said. “We called the church, and sure enough, the pastor fixed it real quick.”
COVID didn’t just cause Election Board officials to take extra precautions; it caused them to cut down on the number of polling stations. Some facilities that would typically serve as a voting spot, such as a nursing home, weren’t available. So some polling stations were moved or combined. Usually there are about 260 polling stations in a countywide election; Tuesday, there were 238.
That explains why Donna Maddox showed up at her regular polling station at a church in south Tulsa only to find that the poll had been moved to Darnaby Elementary School. “I had to call the Election Board when I went to the church and it was closed,” she said.
Tuesday’s election saw a record number of Oklahomans vote by mail-in absentee ballots. Approximately 141,000 were sent out, including nearly 31,000 in Tulsa County.
Freeman said 21,981, 72%, of the 30,721 absentee ballots her office sent out were returned in time to be included in Tuesday’s preliminary election results.
With nearly 98% of precincts reporting, 29% of Tulsa County’s 353,082 registered voters had cast ballots, according to the Oklahoma State Election Board.
With nearly 98% of precincts reporting, the Oklahoma State Election Board reported that more than 655,000 votes had been cast. The state has approximately 2.1 million registered voters.
Perhaps nothing typified the day — and these strange times — better than the pens. The Tulsa County Election Board ordered 250,000 of them at a cost of $12,750. Every person who went to the polls Tuesday was given a new one. Anything to avoid spreading the virus.
Freeman said she hopes she has enough pens to accommodate voters in the August elections. If COVID’s still around, she’ll order more for the November election.
“Even the tiniest little details that you kind of overlook at first, all of a sudden during COVID become extremely important,” she said.
Susan Calvert was glad to get her pen. “They give it to you, and they say, ‘You can take that,’ and I thought, ‘That’s nice,’” she said after voting at Martin Regional Library.
So was her attitude.
“I try not to miss an election,” she said.