Thursday through Saturday, the Tulsa Drillers helped stage what was arguably the most important event to take place at a Minor League Baseball stadium in 2020. Over 13,000 people attended the socially distanced multi-day occasion at ONEOK Field, and yet not a single one sat in the seating bowl. They
Thursday through Saturday, the Tulsa Drillers helped stage what was arguably the most important event to take place at a Minor League Baseball stadium in 2020. Over 13,000 people attended the socially distanced multi-day occasion at ONEOK Field, and yet not a single one sat in the seating bowl. They were there to vote.
ONEOK Field, located in Tulsa's historic Greenwood District, served as an early voting site for all of Tulsa County. The votes cast at the ballpark represented approximately 8 percent of Oklahoma's state-wide early voting totals, which exceeded 165,000.
The Drillers, a member of the Texas League since 1977, serve as the Double-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers. In August, the parent club announced that, via a partnership with LeBron James and his More Than a Vote organization, Dodger Stadium would serve as a voting site for the 2020 election. This news piqued the interest of Drillers community relations manager Taylor Levacy.
"I thought, ‘They’re our Major League affiliate. Why couldn’t we do something like that as well?’" said Levacy. "Voting is something that has always been very important in my family. My mother was more excited that I was registered to vote than the fact that I had turned 18 and become a man."
The Dodgers' precedent, combined with Levacy's enthusiasm for the democratic process, played a key role in making early voting at ONEOK Field a reality. Mike Melega, Drillers president and general manager, was on board with the idea from the start.
"Taylor cold-called the [Tulsa County] Election Board and told them about what the Dodgers were doing. Would they be interested?" said Melega. "They absolutely loved it, thought it was a great idea, and a couple quick meetings later, it was all put together."
For Melega, utilizing ONEOK Field as an early voting site was an extension of the socially distanced event-based operating philosophy the Drillers employed throughout the pandemic-affected Minor League Baseball season that wasn't.
"We ended up with about 35 events, so we’ve been pretty active and aggressive, being creative," he said. "Collegiate baseball, USL soccer, three symphonies, the opera, numerous watch parties. We’ve kept this venue pretty busy, as busy as we can. So having this large group of people in here, it’s just an extension of what we’ve been doing."
From the perspective of the Tulsa County Elections Board, ONEOK Field was an ideal site because it was far larger than typical voting sites such as libraries and gymnasiums. An especially motivated citizenry, combined with the necessity of social distancing, meant space considerations were more important than ever. In a Sept. 21 press release unveiling ONEOK Field's selection as Tulsa County's voting site, election board secretary Gwen Freeman noted the facility met both Center for Disease Control and Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines. It is also accessible via public transportation. Bus service to ONEOK Field was provided free of charge during the early voting period, with Tulsa's League of Women Voters helping to underwrite the approximately $1,000-a-day expense.
Voters entered ONEOK Field from an entrance on the first-base side of the ballpark. The line continued through the concourse into center field, where half of those in line doubled back toward the first-base side. The other half continued on toward third base. Ballots were distributed by poll workers operating within concourse concession stands. Voters then took their ballots to one of approximately 100 booths set up near the concession stands.
"From a logistics standpoint, [the Tulsa County Elections Board] had to do some site visits and check things out from the technology side. Have everything in the right place, how to cue people up," said Melega. "We just unplugged our stuff [in the concession stands] and plugged theirs in. It was all turnkey. But it’s a volunteer-driven process, so it was just like starting the baseball season, when you have a lot of part-timers behind the points of sale. It’s a little slow at first, but as it progressed, it got quicker and quicker and [Friday] everything [was] humming pretty good."
ONEOK Field was open to voters from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, and from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday. The first voter on Thursday morning was in line at 2 a.m., queueing up early on a day plagued by constant rain, high winds and long wait times. Friday and Saturday were far more pleasant, with better weather and faster moving (but still substantial) lines. Drillers mascot Hornsby did his best to be a source of amusement for the concourse crowds, while other Drillers staffers did so inadvertently.
"Our entertainment is the groundskeeper. Right now, he’s tilling the field," Melega said Friday afternoon. "It’s a good way to kill two hours, watching a groundskeeper till the outfield."
Levacy wasn't surprised by the turnout in the slightest.
"But I’m proud. It’s what I had always expected," he said. "This is a very historic election regardless of what party you support. So many people want their voice to be heard and are getting out and making it heard. ... Several of our staff members took the opportunity to vote here as well. Got in early so that they could do it."
"There are a lot of people coming through who have never been to the ballpark before," Melega added. "We’re happy to introduce people to us in whatever way it brought them here. And our election board is thrilled. It’s a perfect location, a community asset in the center of the county. We’re happy to make our venue available.
"I could definitely anticipate more teams doing this in the future."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.