Denise Thompson mailed her ballot three weeks ago, and she’s glad she did.
Thompson, 62, tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday morning. She requested a mail-in ballot for the first time this year for the convenience of filling it out at her dining room table, but sending it in by mail turned into a necessity when she got sick.
She hadn’t been worried about contracting the virus at her usual polling place, a Masonic lodge in Carter County, but Thompson wouldn’t risk infecting someone else.
What if she wouldn’t have requested an absentee ballot?
“I wouldn’t have been able to vote,” Thompson said. “And I just would have been sick about it.”
As the pandemic has swept across the U.S. and Oklahoma, it has shaped voting across the country.
In Oklahoma, the State Election Board doled out personal protective equipment to poll workers, including face masks, hand sanitizer and disinfectants. Strips of tape were placed on the floors of polling places in an effort to encourage social distancing.
Those who have COVID-19 and hadn’t voted yet were allowed to request an emergency incapacitated ballot from the election board.
Absentee voting in the state shattered previous records, as more people opted to cast their ballots by mail.
More than 165,000 Oklahomans voted early in-person, compared to the 2016 general election when 152,000 people cast ballots early, according to the Oklahoma State Election Board.
Meanwhile, more than 280,000 people had voted by mail as of Tuesday morning, compared to 101,000 in the 2016 general election.
In total, more than 446,000 Oklahomans had voted early as of Tuesday morning, about 31 percent of the total voter turnout in 2016.
The surge of mail-in ballots is largely due to the pandemic, but requirements to submit absentee ballots were loosened this year.
Oklahomans weren’t required to get their ballots notarized for the general election, nor for the elections in June and August.
Gov. Kevin Stitt extended an executive order on Aug. 28 declaring a state of emergency because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The declaration triggered a provision in the law that allowed absentee voters to verify their identities through an alternative method.
Despite continued spikes in the pandemic, those who had yet to vote headed out to their polling places Tuesday morning. The State Election Board said it expected a “heavy” turnout Tuesday, according to a Monday news release.
Many voters, standing several feet away from one another, donned face coverings as they waited in line to cast their ballot.
In metro areas, voters reported longer-than-usual lines at their polling places early on in the day.
McKenzie Walser and his wife voted in-person in Edmond on Tuesday morning. The couple had COVID-19 in July, so they felt “more optimistic” about having antibodies. Voting on Election Day is a tradition, Walser said.
“We are all outside, thank goodness for some nice weather,” he said. “I’d say 95 percent of the line is in masks even outdoors. I’m thankful for the consideration.”
The 2020 general election is unique because of the pandemic, a recent ice storm that left thousands in Oklahoma City without power and a surge in voter registration numbers.
Between January 2016 and Sunday, Oklahoma added more than 280,000 registered voters, according to the election board.
“Our county election boards are facing challenges they’ve never experienced before, but they have been preparing for this election for months,” said Paul Ziriax, State Election Board secretary, in a news release on Monday.
“We want to assure Oklahomans that every registered voter that wants to vote will be able to vote. This election will be conducted safely, fairly, and securely.”
Though election officials “strong encouraged” face coverings, they were not required at polling places. Oklahoma does not have a state-wide mask mandate, but officials in many local city governments have enacted their own.
In Tulsa County, voters waited for hours last week to cast their votes early, as a line of hundreds of people snaked around ONEOK Field in downtown Tulsa. The stadium was the only location for early in-person voting.
Adam Palmer, a Tulsa County resident, voted by mail, but his wife and two daughters waited about two hours to cast their ballots at ONEOK Field. Palmer, 44, mailed his ballot on Oct. 1 because he wanted to be certain it got to the election board on time.
He voted by mail this year because he wanted to help reduce crowds at polling places amid the pandemic, and the process was made easier by the state’s loosened requirements around identity verification.
“Part of what encouraged me to do absentee was knowing I didn’t have to get it notarized,” Palmer said. “If that was part of it still I probably wouldn’t have done that.”
Frontier reporter Ben Felder contributed to this story