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Election Board pleads for precinct help; Sand Springs poll workers ask neighbors to step up

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Diana Brightwell (in blue) works with Jerry Fidler (clockwise from right), Stephanie Johnson and Hugh Rackley during a hand-recount of ballots from the Sand Springs City Council Ward 1 runoff election earlier this year. Brightwell, of Sand Springs, has been a precinct worker for more than a decade.

Election officials routinely recruit additional poll workers when big elections are coming up. More unusual is for them to have to solicit precinct workers in specific communities where the need is dire.

But such was the case last week, when the Tulsa County Election Board sent out a press release to local media and contacted municipal officials about the desperate need for precinct workers in Sand Springs.

The threshold seems manageable enough: Sand Springs residents vote at 17 precincts overseen by the Tulsa County and Osage County election boards.

Each one should have three election workers, including at least one Democrat and at least one Republican. That’s about 50 people needed.

But there are a number of reasons people give for why they don’t see election work in a more-positive light.

The pay isn’t great. The hours are really, really long, and workers cannot leave. The work can be complex and intimidating. Voters can be rude.

All of that keeps many people from even considering signing up.

But four Sand Springs residents who have worked the polls for periods ranging from six months to more than a decade universally agree that the “negatives” are either untrue or unimportant.

And to a person, they cited one overriding reason that people should sign up to work the polls during elections:

“I feel like I played a part in something that’s important.”

Fighting disinformation

A version of that sentence said by Sarah Trzynka eventually comes out of the mouths of nearly everyone who works an election.

Regardless of party or political involvement outside of the polls, most precinct workers are a pretty patriotic bunch.

Trzynka has worked as a precinct worker since 2020, when she stepped up to help out during the pandemic. She never left.

Like a lot of people, Trzynka was motivated to work the polls, at least in part, by a less-than-perfect voting experience of her own.

“I went to vote, and they were having some issues keeping up with the flow of the people, and some of the laws had changed recently,” she said.

But that experience stuck with her, and when an acquaintance said she should get involved, she decided to sign up.

Because of COVID-19, Trzynka completed her training online.

“I’ve really enjoyed it,” she said. “For me, it has been a bigger deal as there’s been more disinformation about election security.

“People really don’t understand the process and how it works.

“It really makes me feel better to be able to reassure people who come in and to be able to answer their questions and to be able to look them in the eye and say, ‘You know what? We’re here for you,’” she said. “I’m glad to be able to educate the voters.”

Trzynka said she was really nervous to work the polls during the last presidential election, in which her precinct saw a 44% turnout.

Everything that could go wrong did.

“But I just kept going through that book and going through that book,” she said. I got through it. And at the end of the day, I still didn’t hate it.”

“That book” is the instruction manual that workers at each precinct rely on to tell them what to do in any and every given situation. Workers learn how to use it during training.

“The Election Board fully trains you,” Trzynka said. “They give you everything you could possibly need to run you through any situation, and then they give you their phone number in case something new comes up.”

‘I need to step up’

Michael Phillips became a precinct worker after he, too, had a bad experience voting.

“I just felt like if I’m going to complain about some of the mistakes that were being made, I need to step up to the plate,” he said.

Phillips said that because he is self-employed, he realized he could take the time off work to perform a civic duty.

“I understand that not everybody has the option to take off a day, but it’s certainly a rewarding and fulfilling experience,” he said.

“I can’t do a lot of physical things. I can’t do a lot of philanthropy,” Phillips said. “But this is about time and attention to detail. I can do those things.

“Those are the two biggest requirements: You have to have an attention to detail, and you have to have the time to do it.”

Phillips, who has been a precinct official since the 2016 presidential election, said Oklahoma “has a very, very good process for elections. Between the security of our machines and the consistency of training of our election officials, … it’s like going to McDonald’s.”

“When you walk into McDonald’s, you get the same hamburger no matter where you are.”

‘You feel like you’ve done your part’

Randi Crotty retired during the COVID-19 pandemic and was “bored and needed something to do,” she said.

“I saw that they needed precinct workers, and because I have worked all of my life, I had not really been able to volunteer or do much to help the community, so I saw that, and I thought, ‘I’m going to do that.’”

Crotty started as a precinct worker this past January and has worked two elections.

“I really enjoy it,” she said. “You meet a lot of people. You also learn a lot as a precinct official.

“You just feel good after you’ve done it because you helped the political process and you feel like you’ve done your part, however large or small of a part it was,” Crotty said.

“So many people talk about it and want to make a difference, but they don’t know how,” she said.

“If you want to be a part of something, there’s nothing better than being involved in our democracy.”

‘You’re doing it for your country’

Diana Brightwell has been a poll worker for more than 10 years.

She, too, talks about that sense of duty when discussing why she became a precinct official and continues to serve.

“You’re doing it for your country,” said Brightwell, who retired from the Department of Defense after working for 33 years as a civilian employee.

“It’s interesting. You meet a lot of interesting people,” she said. “It’s not hard. If you can read a ballot, you can do this.

“You can’t just sit and complain and not do anything.”

Brightwell doesn’t just “not do anything”; she does everything.

From filling in at precincts across the county to helping with early in-person absentee voting and even serving during the occasional ballot recount, Brightwell does whatever she’s asked to do.

Her varied assignments have proven to be “a great experience to help combat what is said to happen elsewhere,” she said. “Not in Oklahoma. There’s too much security here.”

Brightwell has seen changes in the past decade, though.

Tempers are shorter. Voters are less kind, she said. Electioneering — campaigning within the polling place, which is against the law — is happening more.

“I just go in in the morning, say my prayers, and get to it,” she said.

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