2017 Tulsa election: Proposition 4: Election in August

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The fourth of the seven charter change propositions on the City of Tulsa November 14, 2017, ballot would once again scramble our city election process. A yes vote on Proposition No. 4 would modify three separate sections of Article VI (Election and Qualification of Officers), with the effect that the three-stage system we currently have would be reduced to two stages, the June primary would be eliminated, the general election would be moved from November to August (the same date as the state runoff election), and what is now described as the general election in November would be called a runoff.

The mark-up below shows the how the text would change if Proposition No. 4 is approved, with added text underlined, and deleted text stricken.

SECTION 1.3. - GENERAL ELECTIONS.

In November in the year 2011, and in November In August in the year 2018, and in August each year thereafter in which an elected officer's term expires, a general election shall be held on the day specified by the laws of Oklahoma for the election of those officers whose terms expire.

SECTION 2.2. - ELECTION PROCEDURE.

In the calendar year of the adoption of this amendment of the Charter2018, and in each year thereafter in which an elected officer's term expires, a primarygeneral election shall be held in August on the day specified by the laws of Oklahoma, at which time the qualified electors of the city shall nominate candidates forfill the officeoffices of those whose terms expire. Only qualified electors residing in an election district may vote in the primary election for candidates for the office of Councilor for such election district. All qualified electors residing in the city may vote in the primary election for candidates for a city-wide office such as Mayor or City Auditor. If a candidate for office is unopposed at the primary election or becomes unopposed by death, disqualification or withdrawal, such candidate shall be deemed elected. If a candidate for an office receives more than fifty percent (50%) of all votes cast for that office at the primary election, such candidate shall be deemed elected. If only two (2) candidates file for an office, there shall be no primary election, and the names of the two (2) candidates shall be placed on the ballot at the general election. If more than two (2) candidates file for an office and no candidate receives more than fifty percent (50%) of all votes cast at the primary election for that office, the two (2) names of the several candidates for eachthe office receiving the greatest number of votes totaling fifty percent (50%) at such primary elections shall be deemed nominated and placed on the ballot at the generala run-off election, unless the number of votes for such two (2) candidates does not exceed fifty percent (50%) of all votes cast for that office; in that event the several candidates in November, on the day specified by the laws of Oklahoma, and the candidate receiving the greatest number of votes and for whom the votes cast at the primary election total at least fifty percent (50%) of all votes cast for that office shall participate in a run-off primary election in which the two (2) candidates for each office receiving the greatest number of votes at suchsaid run-off primary election shall be deemed nominated and placed onelected. In the ballot atevent of a tied vote among the generalsaid candidates, the election shall be decided by lot.

SECTION 3.4. - TIME OF FILING.

Beginning in the calendar year of the adoption of this amendment of the Charter 2018, Declarations of Candidacy shall be filed with the Secretary of the appropriate Election Board no earlier than 8:00 o'clock a.m. on the second Monday in April June and no later than 5:00 o'clock p.m. on the next succeeding Wednesday of any year in which an elected officer's term expires.

Here is a link to the current text of Tulsa City Charter Article VI.

The ballot title reads:

Shall the City Charter of the City of Tulsa, Article VI, 'Election and Qualification of Officers', be amended to hold elections for City offices in August of an election year, require candidates for City offices to file their candidacy in June, and provide for run-off elections, whenever necessary, in November?

Five times between 2006 and 2012 the City of Tulsa made significant changes to the election process: changed the election calendar, lengthened then shortened terms of office, converted elections from partisan to non-partisan. 2016 was the first mayoral election to be held reflecting all of those changes. This latest proposed change would be the sixth modification in 11 years. This instability reflects a failure by voters and councilors to think carefully about the electoral process as a complex system. The election process is too important to be subjected to ill-considered, whimsical alterations.

I've written what turned out to be a lengthy history of all the changes to Tulsa's city election process since the council-mayor form of government was adopted in 1989. Because it was so long, I've broken it out as a separate entry.

The proposed amendment on next Tuesday's ballot is intended to fix the long lame-duck problem that surfaced after the 2016 election, when challenger Tweedledee IV earned more than 50% of the vote against incumbent Mayor Tweedledum Jr in the June primary. The new mayor-elect had to wait five months before taking office. (I've seen worse: Rogers County Treasurer Jason Carini had to wait an entire year between defeating incumbent Cathy Pinkerton Smith in the June 2014 primary and taking office at the beginning of July 2015.)

The proposed fix will create other problems. The new proposal would have a general election in August on the same date as the state partisan runoff election and a top-two runoff, if no one wins a majority, in November. If a party primary for governor, senator, or congressman has no clear winner (very likely in 2018 with a half-dozen candidates already seeking to replace Mary Fallin), August could be a high-turnout election, with lopsided turnout for one party (Republican, most likely) having a lopsided effect on non-partisan city elections.

There are other methods to fix the problem exposed by the 2016 mayor's race. The process for electing non-partisan at-large district judge in our Judicial District has a primary if there are more than two candidates, and the top two candidates in the primary face each other on the November general election ballot, even if one of the candidates received a majority of the vote in the June primary (26 O. S. 11-112). This is because eight of our district judge positions are nominated by Tulsa County voters, one is nominated by Pawnee County voters, but both Tulsa and Pawnee Counties voters decide the winner in November.

Nevertheless the top-two-regardless process could be justified even if the universe of potential primary voters and the universe of potential general voters were coextensive. Voting history statistics suggest that large numbers of eligible voters sit out the primary and let the primary voters winnow the choices to a number they can get their minds around. I wonder how many City of Tulsa voters sat out last June's primary thinking they'd get to vote for the top two candidates in November. With those expectations at work, you could justify borrowing the judicial election rules so that the June vote only narrows the field and never picks the winner.

But the pros and cons of the proposal on the ballot, the proposal outlined above, the previous short-lived systems ought to be discussed and compared side-by-side before we approve any further changes to our election system. We need to have a thorough city-wide discussion about the kind of system we want. Do we want to separate city elections from federal elections, so that there can be more focus on city issues? Should we require charter amendments, bond issues, and tax increases to be considered only on general election ballots? Do we want a first-past-the-post system, simple and quick, but apt to give us officials without a majority mandate; a multi-tiered runoff system, which takes time, but allows voters to focus on smaller numbers of candidates in later stages; or instant runoff voting, quick, but requires voters to consider and rank all the candidates at the same time?

Until we have a commission on city elections to debate and evaluate the possibilities before making recommendations, I will be voting no on every piecemeal modification to the City of Tulsa election process.

ONE MORE THING: Prop. 4 would effectively convert Tulsa's election system into a Louisiana-style jungle primary. In a 2006 UTW column, I explained that a top-two single-runoff voting system can produce results like the 1991 Louisiana gubernatorial primary, in which the two candidates that advanced to the runoff -- Edwin Edwards aka "the Crook" and David Duke aka "the Klansman" -- were widely despised by the population. Incumbent Gov. Buddy Roemer finished a very close third. Any one of several small contingencies could have produced a different result with a governor acceptable to a majority of the public.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on November 7, 2017 11:54 PM.

Tulsa city election process history was the previous entry in this blog.

2017 Tulsa election: Proposition 5: Mayor picks redistricting panel is the next entry in this blog.

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