In September, the New York Times ran an Opinion piece on the possible roles public libraries could play to help with the voting process in the age of COVID-19 and a hotly contested election: How Libraries Can Save the 2020 Election. The article argued that, as trusted and safe public spaces, public libraries could serve as polling places, as well as safe locations to drop off absentee ballots.
A librarian new to the state had read the article and wondered what Oklahoma’s public libraries could do to aid the voting process. We investigated. Elections are governed by the states, and in Oklahoma, public libraries cannot serve as drop off locations for absentee ballots. All absentee ballots in Oklahoma must be mailed to or dropped off at the local county election board. (Drop offs must happen by the Monday before the Tuesday election, and mailed ballots must arrive at the election board by 7:00 p.m. on Election Day.) But public libraries in our state can participate in National Voter Registration Day and can serve as polling precincts. Oklahoma public libraries are also serving as places to provide photocopying or notary services to accommodate new options for Absentee Voter verification.
In early October, the American Library Association requested information from the states regarding the role of public libraries in the election process. ODL surveyed the community and asked public libraries if they were serving as polling places. We received 71 responses covering 74 public library sites. Here are the results of our survey. Plus, we discovered another library serving as a polling place while reporting on our libraries’ roles during the 2020 Census.
16 Oklahoma public libraries are serving as polling places for the November 3rd, 2020 General Election.
A 17th, Del City Public Library, is located in the same Community Center where voting takes place.
Below is a list of those libraries along with comments they shared about their experiences as polling places.
Altus Public Library (Southern Prairie Library System) “It has been a positive experience without any problems.”
Bethany Library (Metropolitan Library System) “Due to the Covid-19 restrictions placed upon Nursing Homes and Senior Care Centers, the county election board began seeking an alternative polling place close to the Senior Living Center where the polling place has been for several years. The Bethany Library was one of their first stops. We almost immediately said yes. We had to think through the logistics of allowing people to walk into our building to vote while the actual library was closed to the public. We were providing curbside service only during the June 30th election. I would say that the Bethany Library being a polling place has worked out very well. The only situation we have to work out is the opening of the front door by 7am. It requires us to reschedule two staff members to get here by 6:15 a.m. to let the election workers into the building to set up.”
Blanchard Public Library (Pioneer Library System) “The election workers pick up a key to the community room (where the voting takes place) the afternoon or evening before the election. They set up the room for the election at that time. They use the separate community room entrance on the day of the election. We may have customers who enter the library side by accident if they didn’t see the sign pointing to the polling place, but we redirect them to the community room. We sometimes get phone calls about the election. We answer the questions regarding time and location for our polling place only, referring other calls regarding ballots, campaign signs, voter registration, etc. to the county election board. Our library traffic may be slightly higher during an election day, but not enough that we need extra staff on hand. The election is held in the community room, which has its own entrance, so the election is fairly separate from the activity in the library.”
Boise City: Soutar Memorial Library “Library closes for the day. We have always had good experience.”
Buffalo Public Library “Our library has been one of the main polling places for many years. Library services are prohibited on polling days, and the Director/Librarian is not in residence on those days.”
Davis Public Library (Southern Oklahoma Library System) ODL Government Information Librarian Susan Woitte discovered Davis PL was a polling place while completing her Census Grant report. Davis staff noted they had used their role as a polling place during the primaries to share information on the 2020 Census with voters.
Del City Public Library (Metropolitan Library System) “While our library space itself has not been a polling place, our library shares a building with the Del City Community Center, which has been a polling place for local elections, primaries and general elections. These days usually end up being higher-traffic days in the library due to the greater number of people in and out of the building.”
Eufaula Memorial Library (Eastern Oklahoma Library System) “Easy and adds foot traffic. The last two were interesting due to the pandemic, but very few lines. They set up the night before and get here before we do. I am a bit apprehensive about the number of voters for the general election in November, but I think we can handle it.”
Idabel Public Library (Southeastern Oklahoma Library System) “No experience really, we just come early and open door for the election people to use our large meeting room and we go on about our business as usual. At the end of day someone stays and locks up after they leave. Some elections are pretty slow and you don’t really see much difference than any other day, but on big elections there is a lot more foot traffic, but it has never been a problem. We enjoy watching the people when not busy.”
Jay: Delaware County Library (Eastern Oklahoma Library System) “I’ve been here eight years and I was informed when I was hired by other staff, that was the ‘only’ time that the library’s meeting room was not in the library’s control—during elections. We have a very good working relationship with our local Election Board.”
Laverne Delphian Library “It’s no problem, the people that do the polling come in the night before and set up the equipment used for polling. They have a key and take care of getting everything out and putting everything back up when they have finished. We are not open to the public to check out books or use the computers. It is just opened for polling that day.”
Muldrow Public Library “We have found that many of those coming to vote had no idea of the library and its services.”
Nowata City/County Library “We have not had any problems with being a polling place. We have two rooms that can serve as the polling place which do not require entering the library section of the building.”
Rush Springs: Glover-Spencer Memorial Library “Parking becomes limited. It would make more sense to close the library for busy elections like the general, except for the occasional times when someone discovers the library when they come to vote.”
Stigler Public Library (Southeast Oklahoma Library System)
Tulsa: Maxwell Park Library (Tulsa City-County Library System) “The previous two elections have been held while this location is closed to the public. Staff is working in the building but behind locked doors. We only unlock the door to deliver materials curbside.”
Watonga Public Library “Elections are held in the meeting room. The election officer sets up the day before since they start so early. We have a separate entrance but it still increases traffic in the library a little. The library has the most registered voters of the three polling places in the community so national and state elections can see quite a few people. Overall, no problems.”
Two public libraries have served as polling places in the past, but have not served this role recently:
Ardmore: Champion Public Library (Southern Oklahoma Library System) “Great experience. During our renovation in 2016, the polling place was moved and has not returned. People still stop by and try to vote here.”
Atoka County Library (Southern Oklahoma Library System) “It was before I started working here.”
By the way, the Oklahoma State Election Board says public libraries wishing to serve as a polling location may contact their local county election board and express this desire. Who knows, maybe your library could be a voting precinct during the next election—a move that could introduce your facility to some new faces.