July Editorial Winner

It's time to make county elections non-partisan

DAVID BURGESS, Vinita Daily Journal

Imagine this scenario: You live in rural Craig County. You arrive home one night to find that your house has been burglarized. You call the Craig County Sheriff's Department. And the first question is, "Are you a Democrat or a Republican?"
Of course, that question would never be asked.
But asking it would be no more ridiculous than the current system of electing county officials.
Craig County voters - Republican voters, anyway - got their latest taste of the flawed system three weeks ago, as did voters for county offices throughout the state.
There are 2,200 registered Republicans in Craig County, and none was able to vote in the primary.
There are 682 registered Independents in Craig County, and none was able to vote in the primary.
That's because all six candidates running for office were Democrats, even though the offices they were running for - sheriff, county clerk and county commissioner - administer their services in a non-partisan way.
Craig County Dist. 2 County Commissioner Hugh Gordon should be commended for pointing out, as he did in the weeks leading up to the primary, that the system used to elect county officers needs to be changed.
It's been tried before.
Almost a decade ago, Rep. Larry Ferguson (R-Cleveland) and Rep. Dale DeWitt (R- Braman) attempted to change the closed primary system, pointing out that it was particularly troublesome in county races, which often draw candidates from only one party.
For evidence, Ferguson cited a 2004 election in which Rep. Leonard Sullivan was elected Oklahoma County assessor exclusively by Republicans, since the only two candidates for the office were from that party. That left more than 200,000 Oklahoma County residents excluded from voting in that race.
The trend was repeated in other elections across the state, with the parties taking turns.
Only Democrats elected the sheriff and county clerk in Logan County, while only Republicans elected the sheriff, county clerk and court clerk in Canadian County.
Is this any way to run county government?
But the proposal to change the way the system works was shot down in the Legislature in 2004, as it had been in 1999 and 2001.
Rep. Randy Grau and Sen. Rob Johnson attempted to change one part of the system earlier this year, but they came up just short.
SB 327 would have required elections for county sheriffs in Oklahoma to be non-partisan. It stood a good chance of being passed, with perhaps only the Oklahoma Sheriff's Association's lack of support dooming it.
Some sheriffs like the current system, and the Sheriff's Association chose not to take an official position.
The lack of support likely doomed the bill, which eventually failed in the House by asingle vote.
But even if SB 327 had passed, it would have only changed a single piece of the flawed system. The next time county elections come up, the other races would still have been partisan - for no good reason - and many voters would still likely have been unable to vote.
In rural counties, such as Craig, the shut-out voters are usually Republicans. In more urban counties, the shut-out voters are usually Democrats.
There is a better way to run elections, and Vinita went with it more than 20 years ago.
After years of being saddled with the same problem that county voters are still saddled with - partisan elections for non-partisan positions - Vinita made a change for the better in 1989.
Now everyone gets to vote in city elections, not just those who happen to be registered with a certain party. That's the way it should always have been, since all city residents are affected by the decisions of, say, the mayor.
And that's the way it should be in county elections. Of course, the difference is that, unlike Vinita, Craig County and other Oklahoma counties can't make that change at the local level. It will have to be done in the Legislature, which means prodding legislators.
It's time to start prodding.