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Saturday, March 28, 2020

1889 Institute: Oklahoma elections, for insiders only?


Oklahoma Elections: For Insiders Only?
By Mike Davis

When is election day? You probably assume it’s the first Tuesday in November. That makes sense, since that’s the date for statewide and federal elections. Would it surprise you to learn that there was an election in Oklahoma every single month in 2019? Not every district has an election every month. That would be a hassle. But the local election schedule is far less predictable.

On first glance it appears that Oklahoma allows government bodies to change lawmakers and raise taxes through oddly scheduled, poorly noticed elections on whichever Tuesday they want. In reality there are “only” 15 days per year when local elections can be scheduled. And the party in power sets the date of their election. School boards and localities can select a Tuesday in July when people are on vacation, or in December when the rush of the holidays is upon us. In either case, voter turnout is likely to be low. A few stalwart supporters could easily carry the day. The other citizens impacted by the vote may be completely unaware of its timing or existence. It is left to the county election board to determine how to let voters in their district know about the times and dates of elections.

This is no way to run a democracy. Majority rule and the consent of the governed are the touchstones of American political life. Only by scheduling elections at well-noticed times can Oklahomans be truly be heard and represented. Scheduling elections when no one expects them so that employees of the local government can swing the vote is, at best, undemocratic and, in reality, a sham.

All school board elections should occur on the same day across the state. Likewise, all county and municipal elections should happen on the same day. Any ballot measure impacting a subdivision should also occur on the same day as elections for its officials.

At the very least, we should require actual notice, such as mailers to every household for each election scheduled. This would ensure that election dates are not burdensome to the average voter, that all citizens are aware of the elections that could affect their household, and that the citizens’ will is made law, not the establishment’s. The cost of such notice would also incentivize localities and school boards to work together to hold elections on the same day, or better yet, find a way to hold them on the days of the statewide primary and general elections.

Voter turnout is not something the state can or should control. Decisions are made by those who show up. But we can and must ensure that elections are publicized enough that those who care to show up, can show up.

Mike Davis is a Research Fellow at 1889 Institute. He can be reached at mdavis@1889institute.org. 

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