So far in Rogers County, 2019 has been full of elections, without a single race for federal office. There was a county wide referendum in February, school bonds from three districts in March, and April capped off more than a dozen municipal and school board elections.
For an off-peak election year, the people of Rogers County sure have been making their voices heard.
And now that the dust has settled on some heated political debates, it's time to look at the apparatus itself. What is a ballot and how is it made?
Falling in love is sometimes spontaneous and other times inevitable. The same can be said about an election.
When a mommy government and a daddy candidate love eachother very much … just kidding, it’s not that simple.
In Rogers County there are 34 entities that can call an election. They may do so because they are required by state law or in other circumstances when they want to put something to a public vote. Each entity has its own set of rules and agendas regarding elections.
At the state level, primaries, midterms and general elections are set to fixed days based on state statutes or the U.S. and Oklahoma Constitutions.
At these elections people vote for candidates to state offices and on State Questions.
State Questions, of which there were many in the last midterm and general elections, are created through initiative petitions, by which voters propose legislative measures or constitutional amendments; legislative referendums, by which the legislature proposes a measure to the voters; and referendum petitions, by which voters propose changes to legislation from the current legislative session.
State Questions can also be held on special elections called by the legislature or governor.
At the federal level is where you get the election date everyone is most familiar with: the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November every even numbered year.
As mandated by the state legislature there are seven possible election dates in odd numbered years and 11 possible in even years.
For state and federal elections, the information on the ballot is sent from the top down.
But in county elections, the 34 entities all work with Rogers County Election Board Secretary Julie Dermody.
Using February’s one penny sales tax as an example, the entity calling for an election is responsible for writing the ballot referendum. Typically they work with a lawyer to ensure that the ballot is readable by the average voter while still having all the necessary legalese.
All of the information these entities send in to the election board is public record, Dermody said.
“If anyone wants to come in and see those or get copies they can, because transparency is the best way to hold government accountable,” she said.
The county election board reviews the information they were given, does a manuel spell check, and then inputs the information into the state’s Modern Election Support Application, MESA, which shares it with the state election board.
Carol Morris of the Oklahoma State Election Board and her team are responsible for laying out the design of the ballot.
They ensure through a series of checks that all information on the ballot is correct and that all the candidates for the same office share a line. Those factors determine whether the ballot itself is 11 or 19 inches long.
“They then send us a mock-up of what that ballot is going to look like,” Dermody said. “We take a copy of that and send it to the entity that is calling the election so they can look it over.”
The information and correct spelling and grammar is verified by the entity itself, verified for a second time by multiple staff at the county election board, and then sent back to the state as approved.
When that months-long process is complete, it’s to go to the printer.
Although you’ll never hear the state election board complain, childbirth … sorry … printing is a painful process.
For primaries, midterms and general elections, state has a printer that they use to print ballots for all the precincts of all the 77 counties in Oklahoma. Rogers County has 36 precincts, each of which could have candidates for certain offices on their ballot that the others do not.
The state contracts with a company called Royal Printing.
“Elections that are called her within the county, whether that be school boards, municipalities, or a county-wide election, we use Midwest Printing,” Dermody said, the only other printer in the state licensed to print legal election ballots.
Both companies have to meet strict state standards that include creating a totally unique barcode for every single ballot.
“That ballot can only be used once and must be used in a machine for that precinct,” Dermody said. “You can’t take a ballot from precint 12 and put it in the precinct 14 machine because it won’t work.”
The machines are also programmed to only accept and count one ballot of each barcode, so copying the ballot wouldn’t do any good.
Ballots are assigned a color based on party affiliation during primaries. Ballot color is assigned during non-partisan elections if there are multiple ballots in a single precinct.
For the Preferential Presidential Primary (PPP) in June 2020, “the state is going to make the judgement call and probably send us 90 percent of the ballots for the voter registration that we have,” Dermody said.
When it comes to absentee ballots, Dermody said, “most counties get 10 percent, but we get more than that because we have 12 to 15 percent that like to vote early in this county.”
However, depending on the election within the county, Dermody may order anywhere from 15 to 50 percent of the registered voters ballots, and many may go unused.
“You never know how many ballots to request,” Dermody said. “You kind of gear it toward what you think the buzz is and you look at past numbers to gauge how many might show up.”
Ordering too few would understandably anger voters and possibly get the election board in legal trouble. But ordering too many would be a severe and unnecessary strain on the election boards tight annual budget of $269,000, which is also used to pay salaries and precinct workers.
Once the printed ballots arrive at the county election board, they remain behind lock and key until game day.
In addition to those quoted, all facts for this story were sourced from publicly available information on the Oklahoma State Election Board website and Oklahoma Statutes.