Tulsa city election process history

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Here is a brief history of all the changes to the City of Tulsa Charter, Article VI, Elections. That link leads to the current text of Article VI and the text of each change, with the ballot language and election results of each.

When Tulsa adopted a mayor-council form of government in 1989, it retained the same election schedule that had been used under the commission form of government, holding elections in the spring of even-numbered years, except that under the new charter the mayor's term was doubled from two to four years. As under the previous charter, elections remained partisan.

1990-1994: The three-day filing period began on the second Monday in January, party primaries were held on the first Tuesday in February, and the general election was held on the first Tuesday in March, except for the initial 1990 general election, which was set for the first Tuesday in April. Terms of office began first Monday in April, except for the initial terms under the new charter, which began on the first Monday in May.

1996-2006: At the 1994 general election, voters approved a charter change moving the general election one week later, to the second Tuesday in March. This schedule remained in place through the 2006 election cycle. The only change to the election process during this period was the addition of a $50 filing fee -- really a deposit, refundable if a candidate won the primary or general or achieved at least 15% of the vote.

It was toward the end of this period that the tinkering with the election process began in earnest.

2008: A 2006 ballot question moved the city primary and general elections, beginning in 2008, to coincide with state election dates in February and April and to reduce the number of times citizens had to go to the polls. Prior to that time, the primary was set for the first Tuesday, with school-board elections following on the second Tuesday, then the city general on the 2nd Tuesday in March, and school-board runoffs (if necessary) on the 1st Tuesday in April. The new charter language did not name a specific Tuesday but referred to whichever Tuesday of that month would be authorized in state statutes for an election; practically speaking, this would be the same dates specified by state statute for school elections.

But the 2008 Tulsa primary wasn't held in Februrary as prescribed by charter. Instead, at the request of the Tulsa County Election Board, it was moved to March, so as not to complicate the process of giving the correct ballots to each voter, with the partisan presidential and non-partisan school primaries occurring at the same election. They wanted to avoid the SNAFU of four years earlier, when the 2004 city primaries were held on the same date as a heavily-contested Democratic presidential primary. (Republican voters in at least one precinct were given Democratic city primary ballots, enough to exceed the margin of victory in the David Patrick vs. Roscoe Turner rematch. The election was declared invalid and the race had to be re-run; Turner won.)

Meanwhile, more radical changes to city government and the election schedule had been under discussion.

After grassroots candidates won a majority of the council seats in 2004, special interest groups (which collectively I referred to as the Cockroach Caucus) sought to undermine the result, first by targeting two councilors, Chris Medlock and Jim Mautino, with a recall election, held on July 12, 2005. Both councilors won the right to retain their seats by a wide margin. Next, many of the same individuals and groups launched a petition drive to add at-large seats to the City Council, diluting geographical representation. When that petition drive stalled, then-Mayor Bill LaFortune established a Citizens' Commission on City Government to study possible amendments to the charter. Chaired by Ken Levit and Hans Helmerich, the commission met over several months, then issued a final report in June 2006.

The commission recommended against a change to the structure of the City Council, but recommended moving to non-partisan elections and to moving the elections to the fall of odd-numbered years. The move to the fall would allow door-to-door campaigning in better weather and longer days, and new officials would have some months to get their bearings before having to produce a budget for the following fiscal year. The spring election calendar left little daylight for door-to-door campaigns, and new officials took office just in time to create next year's budget. The change to election dates was considered in 2007 as part of the standard charter amendment process, put on the April 2008 ballot, and was approved by the voters.

Non-partisan elections were not placed on the ballot by the City Council; in 2009 an initiative petition for non-partisan elections circulated by "Tulsans for Better Government" was ruled invalid in form and to have fallen short of the required number of signatures.

2009: Filing for city offices for three days beginning the second Monday in July, primary election on the state election date (second Tuesday) in September, and general election on the state election date in November (second Tuesday in odd-numbered years). This system, which had been vetted by a commission and subjected to extensive public debate, lasted only one election cycle.

2011: In 2009, some councilors got the idea that three-year staggered terms would be better -- wouldn't have to run as often, wouldn't have as much turnover at each election. In November 2009, at the very first general election held under the new fall, odd-year election schedule, voters foolishly approved the change. All nine seats were up for a vote in 2011, but the terms were one year for districts 1, 4, and 7, two years for 2, 5, 8, three years for 3, 6, 9, with all subsequent terms being three years. One of the awkward things about this plan was that council districts with terms expiring in odd-numbered years would have a September primary and a 2nd Tuesday in November general election, coinciding with the auditor's race and, every four years, the mayor's race, while council districts with terms expiring in even-numbered years would have an August primary coinciding with the state runoff election and a November general coinciding with the statewide or presidential election. A contentious senatorial runoff could completely change the numbers likely to turn out and vote in a council race, boosting the number of voters who hadn't been paying attention to the local races.

2012: In 2011, at the very first election under the system approved in 2009, voters approved yet another change, making elections non-partisan, and moving to a primary, runoff, general system to coincide with statewide and presidential elections. The amendment unwound the previous calendar reforms, setting Districts 1, 4, and 7 to go back to the two-year term beginning in 2012, and the remaining districts to serve truncated terms to start two-year terms beginning in 2014. The next mayor's race would remain in 2013, but the following election would be moved up to 2016 and coincide with presidential elections thereafter.

These changes got on the ballot by means of an initiative petition, backed by the same Cockroach Caucus (this time under the name "Save Our Tulsa") that had been trying for years to make it harder for grassroots candidates on a shoestring budget to win council seats. A councilor who didn't need big money to get elected wouldn't be beholden to the Cockroach Caucus. If they can't get back to the good old days when the City Commissioners all lived within a Par 5 of each other, they can at least make sure the councilors' string-pullers all live in the Money Belt. Statewide and presidential elections bring in a ton of voters who aren't paying attention to city issues and are likely to vote for the council candidate with the most expensive publicity -- at least that's the idea. Without a party label on the ballot, voters would have fewer clues to remind them for whom they intended to vote; this too would make voters more likely to vote for the candidates with the biggest budget.

The non-partisan proposal also created a system of three elections -- a primary in September, a runoff on some unspecified date (if no two candidates received a combined 50% of the vote in the primary), and a general election in November between the top two candidates remaining either from the primary or run-off primary. (I explained the process in detail here, although the method approved in 2011 had already been tweaked by the time the 2013 election rolled around.)

2013-present: A further amendment to Article VI, approved in June 2012, eliminated the language that set September as the primary election date, so that the city primary, runoff, and general election would be held on the same dates as the corresponding state elections, and it moved the city filing period from July to April in an attempt to match the state filing period (a claim made by the ballot title). But the language of the amendment set the filing period as the second Monday to the following Wednesday; meanwhile the state, in 2011, had changed its filing period to the second Wednesday to the following Friday. In most years, the city filing period would come first, with a day's overlap with the state filing period, but in years when April begins on Tuesday or Wednesday, the state filing period would be at the end of the first full week in April and the city filing period would be at the beginning of the following week.

In 2013, Bill Christiansen and two other candidates were eliminated in the June primary, there was no August runoff, and Dewey Bartlett Jr and Kathy Taylor were on the ballot in November. In 2016, there were only two well-financed candidates, and Tweedledum IV managed to defeat incumbent Tweedledee Jr and receive more than 50% of the vote in June, winning the election then and leaving a five month lame-duck period before the Mayor-elect would take office.

Proposition 4 on the November 2017 city special election ballot would revert to a two-tier non-partisan election system, with a general election on the same date as the August statewide/federal partisan runoff, and a runoff election, if necessary, on the same date as the November statewide/federal general election.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on November 7, 2017 10:46 PM.

Reformation 500: Sola Scriptura was the previous entry in this blog.

2017 Tulsa election: Proposition 4: Election in August is the next entry in this blog.

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