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Voters to decide future of elections for lieutenant governor

The Journal Record

June 1, 2018

OKLAHOMA CITY – Oklahoma’s gubernatorial elections could soon start looking more like presidential ones.

Voters will decide, on an election date to be determined, whether the governor should choose a running mate. If State Question 798 passes, the lieutenant governor would cease to be an independent candidate with an independent race and instead run jointly with the governor.

This policy change has been proposed in some form for several years, but it gained the most traction among lawmakers early this year. Step Up Oklahoma, a coalition that the state’s most prominent private-sector executives created, announced several budget and policy proposals in January, as the Legislature struggled to end its second special session. Among the policy changes were several proposals to consolidate power in the state’s executive branch, including a pitch to put the governor and lieutenant governor on the same ticket.

Because that would require a constitutional change, lawmakers introduced the policy in the form of a joint resolution that would create a state question. Senate Joint Resolution 66 made it through the Legislature successfully, although about a quarter of the Senate and a fifth of the House opposed it. Critics said the measure takes power away from voters.

Julia Hurst is the director of the National Lieutenant Governors Association. She said Oklahoma is one of 20 states that elect a governor and lieutenant governor separately. Of those, three states elect a secretary of state who acts as the lieutenant. It’s more common for states to use the method of putting candidates on the same ticket –in the general election, at least. Twenty-six states do that, but there are several ways the candidates end up on the ballot.

In Kentucky, elections mirror the presidential elections. Gubernatorial candidates choose their running mates. And although that might be the first thing that comes to mind when considering a joint ticket, not all states share the same approach. Some states allow the potential governors to run alone in a primary but then use a party nomination process to match the primary winner with a running mate. Others maintain the primary process for both the governor and for lieutenant governor, and each party’s winners are matched.

“We call that the arranged marriage method,” Hurst said. “About half (of the states) that have team elections in the general do it that way. It’s not that uncommon.”

South Carolina was the most recent state to change its procedures. Like the proposition within SQ 798, South Carolina chose to end its separate races and consolidate the two positions onto one ticket. Although voters approved the constitution change in 2014, the Legislature finished codifying the process in March, and the changes will apply to the 2018 election.

The Oklahoma attorney general’s office opted to rewrite the ballot language within the state question, an official announced in a letter to lawmakers last week. One reason: The ballot text did not clarify that lawmakers would have to codify the process.

If the vote on SJR 66 is any indication, there will likely be disagreement over that policy implementation if the question does pass. Several lawmakers debated against joining the candidates in the first place.

During the measure’s Senate hearing in February, state Sen. Frank Simpson, R-Ardmore, raised a concern that the change might decrease the amount of power voters have in the election process. State Sen. Ron Sharp, R-Shawnee, debated against the measure during its floor hearing in April, saying that it would transfer more power to the executive branch. State Sen. Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, asked several questions about whether there have been any problems resulting from the current policy, to which author Sen. Adam Pugh, R-Edmond, said no.

State Rep. Cory Williams, D-Stillwater, said during the House floor hearing in April that instead of this measure, lawmakers should look at getting rid of the position entirely. He said that the past three lieutenants have achieved little in the position and simply used it as a launching pad for gubernatorial campaigns. He said it would be more fiscally conservative to stop spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on the salary, staff and security for the position.

“I can’t figure out what it does,” he said. “And the only requirement in the constitution is that they have a pulse, which they have all fulfilled.”

There are four states in which the people don’t choose the lieutenant at all. In West Virginia, New Hampshire, Maine and Tennessee, the Senate chooses its own president, who serves as the lieutenant governor. In Oklahoma, the Senate doesn’t get to choose the president. Members elect the president pro tempore, who is technically below the lieutenant governor. It’s rare here for the lieutenant governor to use his or her senatorial powers, but it has happened. In 2005, then-Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin seized the lectern from then-President Pro Tempore Mike Morgan, a Democrat, to force a vote on a workers’ compensation overhaul. She controlled the chamber several times throughout the week.

About Bo Broadwater

Bo Broadwater joined The Journal Record Legislative Report as legislative report manager in October 2017. Bo is a member of the Warr Acres City Council and very active in his community. For the past several years, he has been the owner of a small business that provides window treatments such as shutters, blinds and shades as well as window and door replacement. He was a candidate for the Oklahoma House of Representatives in 2016. He attended Oklahoma State University-Oklahoma City and the University of Oklahoma and graduated with a degree political science.

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