The way independent candidates are treated under Tulsa's election laws could change if several proposals being forwarded by a city task force become law.
District 9 City Councilor G.T. Bynum, who serves as chairman of the Election Reform Task Force, said the group issued several recommendations at a council committee hearing last week, and the city's legal staff is in the process of drafting those recommendations into a document to be submitted for consideration by the full council. He expected the recommendations might be taken up as soon as Thursday, July 1.
Under the first recommendation, independent candidates for office would be grouped together in their own primary election, with one winner moving on to the general election. Under current city law, independent candidates need only file for office to have their name included on the general election ballot, avoiding a primary election altogether.
"The independent candidates would have a primary just like the (Democratic or Republican) candidates have," Bynum said.
The current system has led to crowded fields in several races in recent years, including mayoral campaigns. In the municipal elections held last fall, for instance, four candidates -- Republican Dewey Bartlett Jr., Democrat Tom Adelson and independents Mark Perkins and Lawrence Kirkpatrick -- were on the ballot. Bartlett emerged victorious, but he did it without capturing a majority of votes, earning nearly 45 percent of the ballots cast.
Another change affecting independent candidates calls for a change to the filing system. Bynum said under existing law, partisan candidates -- those running under the banner of the Democratic or Republican banner -- pay a fee to file for office, while independent candidates must secure a certain number of signatures of registered voters in order to file.
Under the proposed change, all candidates would be treated the same, having the option to pay the fee or secure the required number of signatures.
"The changes you're seeing here are a reflection of the number of registered independents in Tulsa, which has risen dramatically in Tulsa over the last 25 years," Bynum said. "We're trying to get independent candidates and partisan candidates handled the same way."
Another proposed change would have perhaps the biggest effect on local elections. Bynum's task force has called for the implementation of runoff elections in primaries, something for which the current city charter does not provide.
"We're looking at adopting the same runoff process the state of Oklahoma has," Bynum said. "If the winner of any (primary) election gets less than 50 percent of the vote, there would be a runoff."
There would be no runoff in general elections, Bynum said.
How Much Do You Want It?
Bynum said the task force thoroughly investigated a number of potential changes to the way Tulsa's elections are structured before arriving at its three recommendations. Any proposal that did not develop a broad consensus did not advance as a recommendation, he said.
"There were several areas we thought would be good areas to consider that wound up not being part of our recommendations," he said. "There was a general consensus about self-funding candidates who can come in and dump millions of dollars into a race, but their right to do so is protected in the (U.S.) Constitution, so there's nothing we can do."
Support for limiting the amount of money any candidate can invest in his or her own campaign has grown in recent years as the cost of mounting a viable mayoral campaign in Tulsa has grown.
The past two mayoral campaigns have featured candidates who have financed their own campaigns to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Bynum has said that has led to concerns that candidates without access to that kind of funding will not be able to conduct competitive campaigns for office in the future.
Even though the task force was unable to address that concern, Bynum said he was pleased with the group's work.
"This makes our elections more accessible; it makes them more fair," he said. "And it guarantees the individuals you see on the ballot in November earned at least 50 percent of the vote in the primary. Right now, we don't have that. I think it's a great step forward."
Perkins, the independent mayoral candidate who garnered almost 18 percent of the vote in last November's election, was not as enthusiastic about the task force's work. He said he had not seen the group's report last week, but he voiced his displeasure that an idea he championed during the campaign -- one of nonpartisan municipal elections -- was not forwarded by the task force.
"That idea, which is successful in practice all over the country, is a threat to the political establishment and those that buy into it," he said. "The support I was able to garner as an independent candidate was also threatening to the politicos, and the Election Reform Task Force is a response to that threat."
Local political blogger Michael Bates doesn't share Perkins' embrace of nonpartisan elections, explaining that he believes such a move would provide voters with less information about candidates rather than more.
"It blurs the divisions that exist and hides the fact that we do have divisions of opinion on the best way to run the city," he said.
Bates, who writes the batesline.com political blog, liked the task force's recommendation to implement a runoff system.
"Certainly, we should not have a situation where somebody is nominated or elected after receiving only 20 or 30 percent of the vote, as has happened in the past," he said.
Tulsa does not employ that situation currently, partly because of the cost of staging runoff elections. But Bates said there is a solution to that issue, pointing to a practice called instant runoff balloting in which voters rank candidates in order of their preference. If no candidate receives a majority of votes, instant runoff balloting is used to determine the winner.
"No runoff election is necessary," he said.
Bates also said he approved of the proposed change in filing practices, though he would have liked to have seen the task force recommend a higher filing fee for mayoral candidates than for City Council candidates.
"As it is, anyone can pay their $50 and run for mayor," he said.
Bates said he didn't care for the recommendation that independent candidates be required to go through the primary system.
"The logic behind an independent primary really isn't there," he said, explaining that candidates who classify themselves as independents avoid party labels to keep from being associated with a particular philosophy.
Perkins took exception to the fact that the task force was made up only of City Council members.
"Is it not a conflict of interest for an 'Election Reform Task Force' to be comprised entirely of elected politicians?" he asked.
Perkins did not offer any specific criticism of the recommendations the task force has forwarded, but he sounded leery of them, all the same.
"Make no mistake about it: whatever the finding, any proposed changes are intended to make it more difficult for independent-thinking people to earn a seat at the table," he said. "Both major political parties offer power in exchange for loyalty, and the individuals that reject that notion are considered agitators."
Council approval of the recommendations would not lead to their implementation. Rather, that step would lead to them being sent to local voters in the form of a charter change in November's election.
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