By Janelle Stecklein
OKLAHOMA CITY — Early voting options will expand during this month’s primary elections, though only for voters in two of the state’s most populous counties.
Cleveland and Tulsa counties will add early voting locations for the first time, while officials in Oklahoma County say they plan to expand for the general election in November.
A 2013 law allows the counties — all three of which have more than 100,000 registered voters — to run multiple polling places for early voting.
For now, more rural counties are excluded.
“My preference was to try this in the three largest counties and see how it works,” said Paul Ziriax, secretary of the state Election Board. “If it is successful, then we could always come back and revisit that and maybe make it optional for other counties to consider it.”
Oklahoma voters may cast ballots on the Thursday, Friday or Saturday leading to a state or federal election, but until now early voting has only been allowed at county election headquarters, said Ziriax. That’s meant long lines, and even longer drives for voters who don’t live near a county seat.
Opening multiple polls for early voting isn’t a new concept; other states, including Texas, already do it. But this will mark a first for Oklahoma.
Nearly 2 million Oklahomans are registered to vote.
During the November 2012 general election, nearly half of more than 4,000 early voters in Cleveland County drove from the northern part of the county to Norman to cast ballots, said Anette Pretty, assistant election secretary for the county.
During this month’s early voting period — from June 19 to 21 — they may also vote at the Moore Norman Technology Center, which is closer to Oklahoma City, in addition to the election office in Norman.
Pretty said she hopes the second location will reduce wait times.
“Any way we can serve our voters more conveniently and efficiently, I’m for it,” she said.
Officials in Oklahoma County are more cautious and won’t add new locations until November.
“We want to go slow and deliberate,” said Doug Sanderson, secretary of the Oklahoma County Election Board, who noted that lines typically back up during the general election but not during a primary or run-off election.
In November 2012, nearly 14,000 of more than 385,000 registered voters in his county came to the Oklahoma County election office to cast early ballots.
Sanderson said there’s “enormous cost” in adding polling locations. His county spends about $20,000 just to run early voting for three days at its main election office. Sanderson said he’ll have to find another site and staff to accommodate voters for three additional days.
“Basically, I’ve not seen any (studies) that indicate an early voting site increases the voter turnout,” he said. “In my mind, the best way to vote is not to vote at the polls on your election day, it’s to vote by absentee ballot.”
Election officials in less populated counties said they wish the Legislature gave them an option to expand early voting.
“I think it would be good for Rogers County because of the fact that we are such a large county in terms of area,” said Julie Dermody, secretary of the Rogers County Election Board.
Rogers County is home to 50,100 registered voters. Nearly 5,000 showed up to vote early in 2012.
Dermody said Rogers County’s population is mostly situated in Claremore and Owasso, on either side of the county. She worries that some voters may decide to skip the election if voting isn’t convenient, so she’d like to open a second early voting location in Owasso.
“Not that it needs to happen for every election, but for the large elections, I think it would be very good to have,” she said.
In Garfield County, which has nearly 28,000 registered voters, early voting at the Enid election office has been “pretty wild with 2,700 people coming in,” said Roy Schneider, secretary of the county Election Board.
Schneider recalls years he’s had to direct traffic, as well as times that voters have waited about 45 minutes to cast a ballot.
He said he’d like the flexibility of adding another location to accommodate more than one voting machine during elections with the biggest turnouts.
Janelle Stecklein is the Oklahoma state reporter for CNHI.