The Tulsa non-partisan election and runoff process

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Which_Way_Tulsa_Sign.PNGThere's a good deal of confusion about the City of Tulsa election process. Tulsans have amended the election dates and terms of office about a dozen times in the last seven years. In just a few years we've gone from partisan elections in February and March of even-numbered years to September and November of odd-numbered years, to staggered council terms, to non-partisan elections in June and November of even-numbered years except for the mayor and city auditor, which are still in odd-numbered years.

At least for now: Starting next year, everyone will be elected in the fall of even-numbered years, as long as we don't have yet another charter amendment. (Here's a direct link to the Elections section of the Tulsa City Charter; you'll see all the superseded provisions in italics.)

There are two radically new features of the Tulsa election process. Everyone by now is aware that this is a non-partisan election, with all the candidates for Mayor of Tulsa and Tulsa City Auditor on the same ballot in Tuesday's primary, regardless of party affiliation -- even though we all know that Kathy Taylor is a Democrat and Bill Christiansen and Dewey Bartlett Jr are Republicans, their party affiliations won't be listed on the ballot.

Now this isn't entirely unfamiliar. We've had special elections in which candidates of all parties competed on the same ballot -- the 1992 special election to replace Mayor Rodger Randle, the 2005 special election to replace City Councilor Sam Roop are two examples. What we didn't have was a runoff, and a candidate could win with a tiny plurality as Bill Martinson did in 2005 with only 27% of the vote. In the UK they call that system "first-past-the-post."

In previous election years, we had a partisan primary in normal elections, with the top vote-getter in each party advancing to the general election, regardless of the percentage of the winner. That's how Bill LaFortune won renomination in 2006 -- he fell short of 50%, but the rest of the votes were split among three candidates, and there was no runoff. If there happened to be a strong independent candidate, you also could have a general election winner with a minority of the votes cast.

Which leads us to the other new feature: A runoff, possibly two runoffs. Here are the possible scenarios after all the votes are counted this coming Tuesday, June 11, 2013:

A. One candidate has more votes than all the other candidates combined (i.e., a majority, 50%+1 vote): That candidate has been elected, and we're done. It looks like Kathy Taylor is spending a lot of money to try to make this happen, which is why you see her ads on nearl every website. (I found I saw far fewer of them after I told Google Maps that my location was the bus station in Timbuktu.)

B. No candidate has a majority, but the top two candidates combined have a majority, i.e. more votes than all the other candidates combined. If this happens, the top two candidates will face off in a runoff. This year that will be on the second Tuesday in November. This is the likeliest scenario when there are three candidates running strong campaigns, as we have this year.

C. No candidate has a majority, and the top two candidates together don't have a majority. In this case, add candidates in order of finish until their combined total is a majority. This group of candidates -- the minimum number of candidates whose total vote is a majority -- would compete in a runoff primary in August. At the runoff primary, there are two possible outcomes -- one candidate gets a majority and is elected, or no candidate gets a majority and the top two are on the ballot in November. This scenario would be likelier to happen if there were four or more evenly-matched candidates.

The bottom line for the 2013 Tulsa elections: Because of the runoff system, you can vote for your favorite candidate in Tuesday's primary without worrying that you'll "split the vote" and accidentally help your least favorite candidate win.

There are qualifications that could be added to that statement, but it's certainly true provided that your favorite mayoral candidate this year is one of the three running a competitive race. (If your favorite is one of the two also-rans, it's possible that your second-favorite candidate would be eliminated in the first round and your choice in the finals will be between two candidates you can't stand.)

If your only concern is to keep a candidate from winning outright on Tuesday, all you need to do is show up and vote for any other candidate. A vote for anyone else is a vote to deny a majority to the candidate you detest.

In the auditor's race, there are only three candidates this year, so the above statement is true without qualification.

Please note that this bottom line doesn't apply to the special County Commission race to fill an unexpired term, which has a first-past-the-post Republican primary on Tuesday and a special general election in August and no runoff. While city elections are governed by the city charter and ordinances, county elections are governed by state statutes.

This isn't instant runoff voting, but the new city system does reduce the likelihood of someone despised by a majority of voters could win election.

Graphic above repurposed from the cover of a PLANiTULSA survey.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on June 8, 2013 11:11 PM.

Bully Dewey: Bartlett Jr's appointed auditor attacks whistleblower for ethics complaint was the previous entry in this blog.

John Wright for county competitive bidding, transparency is the next entry in this blog.

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