How will recent turmoil in Oklahoma County government affect the Nov. 3 election?
For several months, protesters have flooded Oklahoma County government meetings to demonstrate against budget and policy decisions.
The intense and ongoing scrutiny on the county has been described as unusual, and ahead of the Nov. 3 election, many believe the recent turmoil has helped prompt voters to become more engaged.
“We know the city council is important. The school board is important,” said Sundra Flansburg, a member of local civic engagement group VOICE. “But county government has been invisible in most cases. But we realize in these crazy times there is a lot of power if we get people in the local seats who listen to their citizens.”
Nationally, the COVID-19 pandemic, along with a summer of civil unrest directed at police brutality, also contributed to the amount of attention placed on local officials.
In Oklahoma County, the most hotly debated topic was how officials decided to spend the majority of roughly $47 million in federal coronavirus relief funds, referred to as CARES Act money. Since August, county meetings have seen hours of public comment and have been interrupted by yelling or chanting.
Several protesters told officials they would vote them out of office or otherwise replace them. One woman already announced her campaign to replace District 3 Commissioner Kevin Calvey, who has been the most at odds with protesters.
And voters generally are turning out in high numbers already.
As of Sunday, nearly 100,000 Oklahoma County residents had already cast a ballot either by mail or during early voting, according to the Oklahoma State Election Board.
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“The county budget board makes every single elected person to county office important,” Flansburg said, referring to the eight-person board that approves most financial decisions. “Until we sat down to look at the budget board and the things they get to make decisions on — where the CARES Act money goes — I hadn’t thought of the power of the county clerk and the county court clerk.”
District 1 Commissioner Carrie Blumert said there are several other reasons people are paying close attention to elections and local government this year as well, including social media use and a focus on the criminal justice system.
“During my election two years ago, the general voter didn’t pay attention to county government,” Blumert said. “But people are catching on more to things that are happening in government that they don’t like or don’t agree with.
“Local activism — whether you agree with what they are advocating for or not — has brought more attention to these races.”
Four county seats are up for election this year: District 2 county commissioner, sheriff, county clerk and court clerk.
The most high-profile county race is for sheriff, which, regardless of the winner, will result in the first Black sheriff in the history of the county after current Sheriff P.D. Taylor lost his Republican primary in August.
In the three other races, the challengers are all younger Democrats looking to attract voters interested in new leadership.
Each filed to run in April, long before protests at the county, but they said they view themselves as offering a more transparent, community-oriented approach to governing than the current officials. And they’ve spoken in support of the protests; one candidate, Charles de Coune who is running for court clerk, attended several of the meetings with the crowd.
“I think people are ready for some progressive change at the county government level,” said Christina Chicoraske, who is trying to unseat Republican David Hooten for the position of county clerk. “Now more than ever, we have to rise to the challenge of making our county government even more accessible.”
But current District 2 Commissioner Brian Maughan, a Republican running for reelection, said he believes the approach taken by protesters has also mobilized many who want to keep the incumbents in office.
“It has been the nastiest campaign I’ve experienced because of ... the viral hatred and obscenities and insults,” said Maughan, who has been in office since 2008.
“I’m getting calls from people who have never been politically active in a county race who believe this is just an absolute disgrace and said they want to help me win in any way possible. ... So the protests have probably helped me in that respect.”
The demonstrating also pushed current officials to get involved in the outcome of other races.
Blumert had previously decided to endorse Chickoraske for clerk, but it was the CARES Act vote that led her to endorse Democrat Spencer Hicks in the race for District 2 commissioner.
Commissioner Calvey has donated thousands of dollars to various Republican political campaigns. Others, like current county Assessor Larry Stein and Treasurer Butch Freeman, have gone to political events or voiced support.
Many were careful not to speculate, saying it’s unclear at this point how county races will turn out. But the uncertainty is, at least partially, a product of the county-level political activism.
“I have no idea what is going to happen on Tuesday, but I am really curious to see if people’s attention and engagement equals votes,” Blumert said. “The more the public pays attention, the more transparent we are forced to be.”