A task force charged with exploring election reform ideas for the city of Tulsa will pursue a number of issues suggested by recent candidates for municipal office, most notably the idea of implementing nonpartisan elections in the city and limiting the amount of money a candidate can give to his or her own campaign, according to the group's chairman.
District 9 Councilor G.T. Bynum -- who heads the Election Reform Task Force, created by the council in December 2009 to include all councilors -- said last week the group was scheduled to hold its first meeting March 10. He said he intended to use that meeting to lay out the task force's agenda and schedule, as well as present several issues upon which the group would focus.
After the task force's creation, Bynum sent a letter to every candidate who filed to run in last fall's municipal elections, asking them to forward his or her concerns or suggestions to him by Feb. 5. He said that request helped him identify four main issues of concern the task force will examine.
The first one, he said, is whether Tulsa should pursue the idea of adopting nonpartisan elections in which candidates do not run under a party affiliation.
The second issue concerns possible changes to how third-party candidates are treated in municipal elections. At present, such candidates automatically are placed on the general election ballot, while candidates from the Republican or Democratic parties have to win a primary election to advance unless they draw no opposition from their own party.
The third issue deals with campaign finance and the possibility of placing a cap on how much money a candidate would be allowed to pump into his or her own campaign. At present, no such cap exists, Bynum said, though the amount of money candidates can accept from individual donors is limited.
The fourth issue concerns whether runoff elections need to be implemented for municipal elections. At present, no runoff system exists, meaning that many races are run by candidates who fail to garner a plurality of votes.
Bynum acknowledged he was surprised he received so much feedback on the third issue.
"I hadn't really thought a lot about campaign finance reform," he said. "But that came back from a lot of people concerned that Sen. (Tom) Adelson (the Democratic nominee for mayor) put around a million dollars of his own into his own campaign and that Mayor (Kathy) Taylor put something like that into her campaign (four years ago). There's some concern that any candidate who didn't have a million dollars to put into a race or doesn't have vast financial resources of their own at their disposal could be eliminated from running for that reason. I think it's a really good issue to look at."
According to campaign finance reports municipal candidates filed for last fall's municipal elections, Adelson raised a total of $1.29 million for his campaign. That figure included an $850,000 loan he made to his campaign.
Adelson's foe in the general election, Dewey Bartlett Jr., raised $1.06 million, loaning his campaign $385,000 of his own money. Bartlett defeated Adelson and independent challenger Mark Perkins in the general election to succeed Taylor in the mayor's office.
It was Perkins, a registered Republican who ran as an independent, who made the issue of nonpartisan elections a hot topic during the mayoral campaign, eventually capturing 18 percent of the vote in a race many observers felt had grown exceptionally nasty between Adelson and Bartlett. Perkins tried to capitalize on that sentiment by advocating for municipal elections free of party affiliation, a move he claimed would eliminate some of the divisiveness from city politics.
The other two issues the task force will examine are matters that Bynum himself has brought up -- the possibility of runoff elections and a possible change for independent candidates.
Bynum, a Republican who defeated Democrat Roger Lowry in November to earn his second term on the council, has voiced his concern in the past that, in a crowded primary field, a candidate who does not claim a majority of votes can still emerge victorious and move on to the general election. He said he fears the same condition is rapidly becoming the rule in general elections because of a growing number of independent candidates.
Even so, he has acknowledged that runoff elections are expensive -- a strong consideration in a city struggling mightily to rein in spending in the face of a declining budget.
Bynum also is concerned the current system provides independent candidates with an advantage over many major-party candidates in that they usually do not have to survive a primary election challenge in order to have their name listed on the general election ballot. He wants to explore the idea of whether third-party candidates should be grouped in a primary of their own, which is an approach other cities have adopted, he said.
Bynum said he has targeted June 10 as the date by which the task force will issue its final report.
"But if other councilors bring up other items they want to look at, we'll probably push that deadline back a little bit," he said.
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