Special elections come at a price

There are four special elections under way in Oklahoma at this time, and Sen. Ralph Shortey’s fall from grace we are virtually assured of another one. There would have been at least one more to replace former Attorney General Scott Pruitt except that gubernatorial appointments are allowed to fill vacancies in state-wide offices(and Joy Hofmeister has charges pending so that’s another potential gubernatorial appointment).

Each of these special elections cost well into six figures. They usually occur because an officeholder has become disgraced, such as with state legislators Ralph Shortey and with former representative Dan Kirby, faces pending results of an investigation such as with now-retired Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel, or like Tom Newell they get a better offer. That’s close to, if not more than, a million dollars for special elections to replace individuals who either aren’t committed enough to stay in the job they sought or they probably shouldn’t have been placed in a position of public trust to begin with, and its money that would likely be better spent elsewhere when state government has experienced multiple successive revenue failures.

An obvious solution would be to have all vacancies filled by appointment. However, increasing the power of the governor, particularly over seats in the Legislature(a separate branch of government intended to be a check on the Executive) or over county offices is problematic. Gubernatorial appointees are likely to be more responsive to the state’s chief executive than to constituents in their districts, and unlikely to have ever campaigned for the office. Patrick Wyrick, Gov. Fallin’s pick for the Oklahoma Supreme Court, is facing a legal challenge that he doesn’t meet the residency requirement. Former Gov. Brad Henry put Jim Roth on the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, but despite heavily outspending his opponent Roth lost his bid to be elected to the post. And students of Oklahoma’s political history no doubt recall that after Robert S. Kerr died unexpectedly, then Gov. Howard Edmondson resigned with just days left in his term, elevating Lt. Gov. George Nigh to a week or so in the Governor’s chair, with Nigh appointing Edmondson to replace Kerr in the U.S. Senate. Oklahoma voters repudiated Edmondson in the next Democratic primary race, giving Fred Harris 60% of the vote.

If gubernatorial appointments are not the answer, an alternative method to fill an unexpected vacancy in a political office would be to elevate the runner-up from the last election to the job. This might well mean a member of a different party or an Independent replacing an outgoing public official, a suggestion that may horrify rabid partisans but would inject our political landscape with new faces and new ideas, not to mention encouraging parties to seek to avoid selecting candidates who might cost them a seat even after winning it as well as causing office-holders to have second thoughts about abandoning their post. It would incentivize individuals to run for office even against long odds which would be most helpful in a state where fifty-eight seats in the state Legislature and five statewide offices were won in 2014 by candidates who ran unopposed. The individual who would take over the spot would be someone who has shown the gumption to stand before the people of the district and ask for their support and would not be an individual hand-picked to serve an outside political interest. And most importantly, it would save the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Since this story was written State Representative Scott Martin has announced he will resign after the end of the session in order to become head of the Norman Chamber of Commerce, State Representative David Brumbaugh died unexpectedly, and State Senator Kyle Loveless has resigned in the face of an investigation into his campaign financing. This will necessitate three more special elections.