State and county election officials say long lines at the polls on Tuesday are a byproduct of the state’s election laws and policies and that there are no plans to address them — at least not immediately.
Lines as long as two hours were reported at some precincts, but election officials said it was typical of a presidential election in Oklahoma and a step up from similar hassles at polling sites in other states.
“You’ll see people camping out there all night for the next iPhone but if they have to wait 20 minutes to vote they get upset,” said Patty Bryant, secretary of the Tulsa County election board. “We’re all about accuracy, not speed.”
Tuesday’s turnout was about 63 percent of the state’s 2.1 million registered voters. The turnout was below the 67 percent recorded in 2008 and the 68 percent that voted in 2004, which was the highest number of voters in Oklahoma to cast ballots in a presidential election.
Paul Ziriax, secretary of the State Election Board, said the state does not have a mechanism to keep track of wait times, but a majority of about 1,000 complaints emailed to the board were from voters frustrated with lines, he said.
“But quite frankly, the biggest issue in terms of polling places we’re facing is we have an aging population of poll workers with far fewer people from the younger generation willing to stand up and provide that public service by being an official, and it’s become more difficult for counties to find those precinct officials,” Ziriax said.
The wait on Tuesday was typical of presidential elections, in which more people vote than in other years, he said. New state voting policies and requirements — specifically a 2010 law that requires voters to show their identification before voting, and new precinct maps developed after the 2010 Congressional redistricting — made the process slower.
Ziriax said 1,086 of 2,000 provisional ballots validated Friday were from voters who did not have proper identification when they showed up to vote.
Provisional ballots are temporary ones filled out by questionable voters at the poll site and later validated after the voter’s identity and residence can be verified.
Ziriax also said the State Election Board tried to fend off long lines by authorizing counties to hire extra hands as needed.
Oklahoma County Election Board Secretary Doug Sanderson said extra poll workers were indeed sent to some of his county’s more populated voting precincts.
But bumping up the precinct crews or splitting the registry so that multiple lines can form isn’t necessarily the end-all to long lines during such high voter turnout, Sanderson said.
“Tell me what that magic number is? And then if you want to send 10 of them out, where do I get the 10 additional people to man them?” he said. “We max out our maximum personnel that we have available; I just think that this is being blown out of proportion.”
The number of provisional ballots cast in Oklahoma County increased from about 1,000 in 2008 to 1,753 this year.
Sanderson said 364 of those ballots were validated during a count Friday.
Most complaints lodged at the county election board were also from people frustrated by the lines, Sanderson said. One Oklahoma County voter filed a formal complaint with the State Election Board after finding the signature of a stranger on the line next to his name in the registration book.
Some complaints about lines have been voiced not by voters, but by county election board officials.
Wanda Armold, secretary of the Canadian County Election Board, said board officials are hamstrung by a state law that dictates how much can be paid to election officials.
The state authorizes counties to pay $87 to precinct workers and $97 to election inspectors, which is equal to minimum wage for 12 hours. But most poll workers stayed longer than that, and without a break.
“They have children, they take care of their parents, they can’t sit for 13 hours because they’ve had hip replacements or knee replacements — it’s an ongoing challenge to keep those jobs filled,” Armold said.
Monica Baughman, election board secretary in Comanche County, said precinct volume was not considered when the Legislature mapped the new Congressional districts.
Lines two hours or longer wrapped around polling places in five Comanche County precincts on Tuesday, while there was hardly a wait at most others, Baughman said.
This imbalance could have been prevented were election boards brought into the process, she said. It’s something election officials complained about after the redistricting a decade ago.
“And then when redistricting was done this time again some of those issues were addressed and some weren’t,” she said. “I think they need to involve everybody in the process. We kind of know where the trouble areas could be.”
Ziriax said those are issues that should be taken up with state lawmakers, who set the rules and policies for elections, and not with the local or state election boards.
Tuesday’s election is already estimated to cost between $1.2 million and $1.5 million, he said. Asking the state for more money so extra precinct workers can be recruited, trained and deployed seemed like a bad idea during a time of state budget cuts.
“But that does not mean we never will,” he said. “That may be something the Legislature should consider — increasing the amount that can be paid to poll workers. But the Legislature also has to consider the budget realities of how much that would cost, especially if that’s every four years.”
Ziriax said the state could also explore alternatives to the traditional precinct program. Some states have reported reduced election costs and shorter lines with larger vote-processing centers replacing smaller precincts in the more populous counties.
“Now what that entails and whether that would cost more or generate savings, we don’t know, but we do have discussions about those types of issues al the time and we would certainly discuss those with the Legislature when we feel it’s necessary,” he said.