The city’s municipal election schedule might be changing again.
City councilors Wednesday will discuss a proposed charter amendment that would shorten the time between when municipal candidates file for office and the general election is held.
Under the existing nonpartisan election system, candidates file for office in April, a primary is held in June, a primary runoff, if needed, is held in August, and the general election, if needed, is held in November.
City Councilor Anna America, who is proposing the charter change, said last year’s municipal elections provided a perfect example of why many people believe the existing system isn’t working.
The June primary is intended to narrow the field of candidates to two or three. But if a candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, he or she is elected.
That’s exactly what happened last year. Then-City Councilor G.T. Bynun earned more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary, ousting two-term Mayor Dewey Bartlett from office. With no need for the candidates to face off in a primary runoff or a general election, Bartlett found himself having to serve five months as a lame duck.
America’s proposal would get rid of that scenario by eliminating the primary runoff in August and having the June primary held in August. The general election, if needed, would be held in November, and the filing period for candidates would be moved from April to June.
The proposed charter change amendment would apply to all elected municipal offices, including the City Council.
America said she would also change the names of the August and November elections. The August vote would become the “general” election and the November vote, if needed, would be called the “runoff” election, she said.
The existing election labels have been confusing given that the city’s elections are nonpartisan, America said. She noted, for example, that some Democratic voters were turned away from their polling stations during last year’s mayoral primary because the two candidates were Republicans.
“Not just voters were confused, precinct workers were confused,” America said. “We kind of want to get away from that (language) if we can because we’re not partisan.”
City Council candidates run for office under the same election schedule as mayoral candidates, but their terms are only two years. As a result, they spend nearly half their time in office in campaign mode.
Another harmful scenario possible under the existing election system, America said, is that city government could be thrown into turmoil if incumbents lose big.
“It’s possible, under our current system, to literally have all of the councilors and the mayor be lame ducks,” she said. “So just think about the damage that could have been done, frankly, if you had a majority of the Council that had been ousted and had five or six months to work mischief.”
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 America says that scenario is rare.
“The runoff is possible but is incredibly unlikely,” she said. “So it is an unnecessary step.”
America’s proposed charter change would have to be approved by voters, with the election likely in the fall.
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.
City councilors and the city auditor will be up for reelection in 2018. The mayor serves a four-year term. The next mayoral election is scheduled for 2020.