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Oklahoma Elections: For Insiders Only?

When is election day? Most people probably assume it’s the first Tuesday in November. That makes sense, since that’s the date for statewide elections, and, in even numbered years, federal elections as well. Would it surprise you to learn that there is an election scheduled in Oklahoma every single month in 2019? That is not to say that every district has an election every month. That would be a hassle - the well-engaged citizen would have to make it to his local precinct every 4 weeks to make sure his views are adequately expressed. The slipshod way local elections are scheduled is far more shocking and less predictable than that.

One would be forgiven for thinking, on first glance, that Oklahoma allows government bodies to change lawmakers and raise taxes through oddly scheduled, poorly noticed elections on (almost) whichever Tuesday they want. However, in reality there are “only” 15 days per year when local elections can be scheduled. Still, this means that the party in power gets to set the date of their election. School boards and local governments can set elections in any month they choose. This could be 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 any vote to approval. The rest of the citizens impacted by the vote may be completely unaware of its timing or even of its 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 the American way of life. Only through the due process of scheduling reasonable elections at well-noticed times can the citizens of Oklahoma be truly be heard and represented. Scheduling elections for a date when no one expects it – so that only those voters who work in, or are somehow connected to, the local government remember to vote – is, at best, undemocratic and, at worst, a sham. 

The right to vote carries responsibilities to be sure - being informed on the basic issues and candidates should be a prerequisite for anyone casting a vote. But it should not be difficult for a reasonably informed citizen to know when it’s time to vote. Oklahoma should put procedures in place to ensure that people know when votes will happen, and that there are not a burdensome number of voting days in a year. Any ballot measure should have to happen concurrently with the statewide primary. Or, if the need is sufficiently urgent, on the date of the statewide primary. 

In a perfect world, there would be only two election dates each year: the primary and the general. However, There may be some real logistical reasons that school board and other local elections can’t happen on the date of the statewide elections - congressional districts do not always follow the same lines as school districts or county offices. Therefore, voters might be required to go to multiple polling places on the same day. As this would also be burdensome, the smart solution is for the state to intervene and ensure that, at a minimum, all school board elections occur on the same day across the state. Likewise, all county elections should occur on the same day statewide, as well as all municipal elections. Any ballot measure impacting such a district should also occur on the same day as elections for those officials. Furthermore, all Oklahoma elections should require actual notice, such as mailers to every household for each and every election scheduled. This would ensure that election dates are not burdensome to the average voter, that all citizens are aware of the elections which could affect their household, and that the citizens’ will is made law, not the government’s. It would also be somewhat expensive - this is a feature, not a bug. The cost would encourage 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 there should be a real effort to ensure that elections are publicized enough that those who care to show up, can.  

By Mike R. Davis, 1889 Institute Research Fellow
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