Tulsa City Councilor Anna America was one of the lucky candidates running for a city elected office this year: She had no challenger for her District 7 seat, so she did not have to endure the seemingly endless election cycle that is Tulsa’s municipal election format.
Still, she wants it changed.
“You file in April, you have a June (primary) election, a possible August (runoff) election, a November election, and you don’t take office until December,” America said. “Essentially, what you’re doing, March through the end of the year, you are in a campaign, potentially. That’s just crazy.”
Working with Jack Blair, the City Council’s policy administrator, America has come up with a proposal to change the election format in three significant ways:
- Hold the June election in August and eliminate the August election;
- Open the November election to more than two candidates for each office, if necessary;
- Change the the name of the August election to the “general election” and the name of the November election to the “runoff election.”
It’s not as complicated as it sounds. The proposed changes would shorten the election cycle by about three months, allow for that rare instance when a third candidate qualifies for the November vote and clarify for Tulsans that every municipal election is open to every voter, regardless of party affiliation.
The changes would have to come in the form of a charter change approved by voters. The earliest the proposal could be voted on is next year, with an effective date of 2018.
Under the existing nonpartisan election system, if the top two vote-getters in the June primary do not receive more than 50 percent of the vote, “the several” candidates who do move on to the August runoff.
But, as America noted, that has not been an issue.
“We cannot find that ever in Tulsa’s history did we ever require a runoff in any city race,” she said.
Since there is no law requiring runoff elections, America’s proposal is to have the top two candidates in the August general election move on to the runoff election in November, should no candidate win outright by receiving more than 50 percent of the vote. Should the unlikely happen and no two candidates receive a majority of the vote in August, the several who do would face off in the November runoff. The candidate with the most votes in the runoff election would be the winner.
The existing municipal election format was approved by Tulsans in 2011. The changes were sponsored by Save Our Tulsa and included making municipal elections nonpartisan, returning City Council terms to two years and scheduling municipal elections — historically held in the spring — for the fall to coincide with state and federal elections.
The city’s municipal elections had been partisan and included a primary and a general election. Occasionally, a third-party candidate would show up on the ballot.
Part of the rationale for the 2011 initiative was to take partisanship out of the races and improve voter turnout. Supporters of the proposal also argued that it would increase the likelihood that winners would come into office having received a majority of the vote.
Only two citywide municipal elections have been held since the election format was changed, making it difficult to assess its lasting impact. But this much is sure, Blair noted: It is not uncommon for candidates to win office with less than a majority of the vote.
Mayor Dewey Bartlett did it in 2009 with 45 percent of the vote, when he defeated Tom Adelson and two other candidates, and former Mayor Bill LaFortune won his race in 2006 when he received 43 percent of the vote in a four-person field, according to Blair.
What was not fully appreciated by advocates for change, America said, was the length of the election cycle and its impact on the day-to-day governing of the city.
Councilors, who serve two-year terms, can end up spending nearly half of their time in office on the campaign trail.
“It’s just way too long,” America said of the campaign season. “It’s stupid, and it distracts people from doing what they need to be doing, which is actually governing the city.
“It makes it harder for the people in the community because, then they have to treat people as a candidate instead of a councilor and worry about all that kind of stuff, instead of just saying, ‘Hey, I need you to do something for our community.’”
John Brock, who led the “Save Our Tulsa” petition drive, told the Tulsa World in 2013 that he never really thought of the long waiting periods between elections when proposing the new election format.
This year’s mayoral election, which saw Bartlett lose to City Councilor G.T. Bynum on June 28, shows how the protracted schedule can lead to unusual and even awkward moments at City Hall.
With Bynum scheduled to take office Dec. 5, Bartlett is essentially a lame duck for five months.
America cautions that in different times, with a different group of elected officials, that could create a problem.
“When you have contentious races, like in the past, you could have had a mayor, or councilors and a mayor, who had all been rejected by voters, who get five months, more than five months, to do whatever damage they can on their way out,” she said.
There is a simple reason why the existing three-election format runs so long — the law. The city must notify the Tulsa County Election Board of an election at least 60 days before the date of the election and 75 days before if a state or federal election is to be held on the same day.
These requirements are in place to comply with a 2009 federal law that requires ballots be sent to military and overseas voters no later than 45 days before an election.
Scheduling the municipal election is complicated further by the fact that the state limits what days elections can be held.
The many days between elections, and its potential negative impact on city government, is not what voters had in mind when they approved the format change in 2011, America said.
“When I talk to people and I tell them how it works, it’s like, ‘Heck, that’s not what we wanted,’” she said.
America said she has discussed her idea with Bartlett and Bynum but has yet to provide them with details. Bartlett has previously expressed support for modifying the election system. Neither he nor Bynum returned calls for comment.