Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) appointed John O’Connor (R) as the state’s attorney general on July 23. O’Connor was sworn in on the same day for a term expiring in 2023.
O’Connor succeeded former attorney general Mike Hunter (R), who resigned on June 1. Hunter had served as the attorney general since 2017.
O’Connor has worked as an attorney in private practice and served on the Board of Trustees of Oklahoma State University-Tulsa. Trump nominated O’Connor to a split seat on the United States District Courts for the Northern, Eastern, and Western Districts of Oklahoma on April 10, 2018. The U.S. Senate did not confirm O’Connor during the 115th Congress, and O’Connor withdrew his name from consideration for re-nomination by the next Congress on Apr. 12, 2019.
The Oklahoma Attorney General is an elected executive position in state government. The attorney general serves as the state’s chief legal officer and prosecutes violations of state law, represents the state in legal disputes and issues legal advice to state agencies and the legislature.
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) appointed Dana Kuehn to the Oklahoma Supreme Court on July 26. The appointment filled a vacancy on the court caused by former Justice Tom Colbert’s retirement on Feb. 1. Kuehn is Stitt’s third nominee to the nine-member supreme court.
Under Oklahoma law, state supreme court justices are selected by the governor with help from a nominating commission. The nominating commission puts forward a list of three names from which the governor chooses the appointee. The appointed judge serves an initial term of at least one year before standing for retention in the next general election.
Before her appointment to the supreme court, Kuehn served as a judge on the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals. She was appointed to that seat in 2017. From 2006 to 2017, Kuehn was a Tulsa County associate district judge. Prior to becoming a judge, she worked as a Tulsa County district attorney and as an attorney in private practice with Steidley & Neal, PLLC. Kuehn earned a B.A. in political science from Oklahoma State University and a J.D. from the University of Tulsa College of Law.
With her appointment to the supreme court, Kuehn became the first woman to serve on both of Oklahoma’s high courts.
In 2021, there have been 14 supreme court vacancies in 12 of the 29 states where replacement justices are appointed instead of elected. To date, 12 of those vacancies have been filled.
The Oklahoma State Legislature adjourned its 2021 state legislative session on May 27, 2021. The legislature did not refer any constitutional amendments to the ballot during the 2021 legislative session. One constitutional amendment, House Joint Resolution 1001, was passed unanimously in the House but did not receive a vote in the Senate before the session adjourned. The legislature may consider the amendment again for referral to the 2022 ballot during its 2022 legislative session.
HJR 1001 would change how the Rainy Day Fund’s maximum balance is calculated. Currently, the state’s Constitutional Reserve Fund (Rainy Day Fund) has a maximum allowed balance of 15% of the General Revenue Fund certification for the preceding year. The amendment would change how the maximum balance is calculated to 15% of total expenditures for the previous fiscal year. The total expenditures would exclude money expended from revolving funds, funds with money derived from fees or non-tax revenues, and proceeds from a bond or debt obligation. In the amendment’s fiscal impact statement, legislative analysts said that “the provisions will increase the basis on which the calculation of the fund balance maximum is made, perhaps as much as a one hundred percent (100%) increase. This will result in the ability for the fund to receive more surplus funds.”
Oklahoma also allows for citizen-initiated constitutional amendments, citizen-initiated state statutes, and veto referendums, making it one of 26 states in which statewide ballot measures can qualify for the ballot through a signature petition. The number of signatures required to qualify initiatives and veto referendums for the ballot is tied to the total votes cast for governor in the last gubernatorial election. For a signature petition to initiate a constitutional amendment, proponents must collect valid signatures equal to 15% of votes cast for governor—177,958 for the 2022 ballot. For initiated state statutes, the requirement is 8%—94,911 for the 2022 ballot—and for veto referendums, the requirement is 5%—59,320 for the 2022 ballot.
One initiative petition has been filed targeting the 2022 ballot. The measure is a veto referendum that was designed to repeal House Bill 1674. HB 1674 would (1) make unlawfully obstructing use of public roads a misdemeanor and prescribe penalties for those found guilty of participation in a riot and (2) grant criminal and civil immunity in certain circumstances to vehicle operators who flee from a riot if they cause injury or death.
Once an initiative petition is filed, protests may be filed challenging the sufficiency of the petition within 10 days after the notice of filing is published. The Secretary of State sets the date for signature collection to begin at least 15 days (but no more than 30 days) after any/all protests challenging the petition have been resolved. Initiatives can be circulated for a maximum of 90 days. Signatures are due by 5:00 p.m. local time on the 90th day. State election officials in Oklahoma recommend filing a proposed initiative during the first months of the year preceding the targeted election year due to the two periods during which challenges may be filed against an initiative. For example, to qualify an initiative for the November 2022 ballot, Oklahoma election officials recommended filing the initiative proposal in the early months of 2021. For a measure to appear on the ballot, signatures must be submitted long enough in advance for the governor to issue an election proclamation, which must be issued and certified to the State Election Board at least 70 days prior to an election (August 30, 2022, to qualify for the November 8, 2022, ballot).
A total of 71 measures appeared on statewide ballots in Oklahoma from 2000 to 2020, including five measures that appeared on the ballot during even-numbered years. Of the measures, 74.65% (53 of 71) were approved, and 25.35% (18 of 71) were defeated.
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter (R) announced on May 26 that he would be resigning effective June 1. Hunter cited “personal matters that are becoming public” as the reason for his resignation. The Oklahoman reported that Hunter allegedly had an affair with another state employee.
In a statement, Hunter said, “It has been a distinct and absolute privilege of a lifetime to serve as the state’s attorney general…I cannot allow a personal issue to overshadow the vital work the attorneys, agents, and support staff do on behalf of Oklahomans.”
Gov. Mary Fallin (R) appointed Hunter attorney general of Oklahoma in 2017 after former Attorney General Scott Pruitt (R) was sworn in as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Hunter was then elected to a full term in 2018. Before his appointment as attorney general, Hunter served as secretary of state of Oklahoma from 2016 to 2017 and from 1999 to 2002. Hunter began his political career by serving in the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1984 to 1990.
The attorney general is an executive office in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, serving as the chief legal advisor and chief law enforcement officer for the state government. The office is empowered to prosecute violations of state law, represent the state in legal disputes, and issue legal advice to state agencies and the legislature.
The attorney general is an elected position in 43 states and the District of Columbia, including Oklahoma. However, when a vacancy occurs in the Oklahoma attorney general’s office, the governor appoints a successor to serve until the next election.
Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau released apportionment counts for the U.S. House of Representatives, kicking off the 2021-2022 redistricting cycle. Throughout this year and next, policymakers (including state legislators, governors, and special redistricting commissions) will draft and implement new state legislative and congressional district maps, which will remain in force for the next 10 years. Beginning today, we will provide weekly updates on major redistricting events across all 50 states.
• Oklahoma lawmakers unveil draft maps for state legislature: On April 21, Oklahoma lawmakers released their proposed district maps for the state senate and house of representatives, making Oklahoma the first state in the 2021-2022 cycle to produce draft maps. In lieu of final 2020 census data, which has not yet been made available to the states, lawmakers used the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey data for 2015 through 2019 to draft their proposals.
• Release of apportionment counts triggers lawsuits in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania: On April 26, Democracy Docket filed three separate lawsuits on behalf of registered voters in three states, asking courts in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania to intervene and set up timelines for enacting court-drawn maps for the 2022 election cycle “in the near-certain event” that governors and legislatures in each state fail to do so. The substantive language used in the three suits is similar. All three allege that “there is no reasonable prospect that … political branches will reach consensus to enact” lawful district maps in a timely manner because the three states operate under divided governments (i.e., both the Democratic and Republican parties control at least one of the following: the governorship, the upper chamber of the state legislature, and the lower chamber).
• New York Gov. Cuomo mulls legal challenge over loss of congressional seat: On April 27, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) told reporters that he was considering the state’s “legal options” with respect to New York’s loss of one congressional seat to reapportionment. According to estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau, the state could have kept the seat if 89 additional New York residents had been counted. Cuomo said, “Do I think it was accurate within 89? No. And we’re looking at legal options. Because when you’re talking about 89, that could be a minor mistake in counting.” According to Janna Johnson, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs, no state has ever succeeded in challenging apportionment counts in court.
• Pennsylvania Supreme Court appoints chairman of state legislative redistricting commission: On May 3, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court announced the appointment of Mark Nordenberg as chairman of the Pennsylvania Legislative Reapportionment Commission. Nordenberg, Chair of the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute of Politics, joins Sen. Majority Leader Kim Ward (R), Sen. Minority Leader Jay Costa (D), House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R), and House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton (D). The state supreme court appointed Nordenberg as chairman after the four other members of the commission failed to agree on an appointment. The commission has the sole authority to draft and implement new state legislative district maps.
In 2021, 48.6% of Oklahoma school board races covered by Ballotpedia will not be on the ballot due to lack of opposition, which is the lowest unopposed rate since Ballotpedia began tracking this figure in 2014. Thirty-five seats are up for election across 26 school districts included in Ballotpedia’s comprehensive coverage in 2021. Candidates ran unopposed in 17 of those races.
Across eight years of tracking, the highest unopposed rate for Oklahoma school board elections occurred in 2015, when 85.7% of races had an unopposed candidate. Below is a list of unopposed rates from 2014 to 2021.
The general election for races that do have opposition is scheduled for April 6. For races that had more than two candidates file, the primary election was held on Feb. 9. Candidates were able to win the election outright if they earned more than 50% of the vote in the primary.
The following districts will hold a general election on April 6:
Banner School District
Crooked Oak Public Schools
Deer Creek Public Schools
Edmond Public Schools
Midwest City-Del City Schools
Mustang Public Schools
Oklahoma City Public Schools
Owasso Public Schools
Piedmont Public Schools
Putnam City Schools
Tulsa Public Schools
Union Public Schools
Western Heights Public Schools
Yukon Public Schools
These fourteen school districts served a total of 190,878 students during the 2016-17 school year.
Primaries for school board elections were held in Oklahoma on February 9. Ballotpedia is covering elections for 35 seats across 27 Oklahoma school boards in 2021. These 27 school districts served a combined total of 261,543 students during the 2016-2017 school year.
Seventeen seats were won outright by unopposed candidates. There were 13 seats where two candidates automatically advanced from the primary to the general election on April 6. The remaining five seats held primaries between three or more candidates. Elections can be won outright in the primary if a candidate receives more than 50% of the vote.
In the Edmond Public School District, Margaret Best and incumbent Lee Ann Kuhlman advanced to the general election for the District 1 seat. Best and Kuhlman earned 34% and 27% of the vote, respectively.
In the Oklahoma City Public School District, Charles Henry and incumbent Paula Lewis advanced to the general election for the chairperson seat. Henry and Lewis earned 48% and 44% of the vote, respectively.
In the Owasso Public School District, Stephanie Ruttman and Rick Lang advanced to the general election for the Ward 1 seat. Ruttman and Lang earned 31% and 24% of the vote, respectively.
In the Putnam City Public School District, Judy Mullen Hopper won outright in the primary for Seat 3. Hopper earned 66% of the vote against two other candidates including incumbent Sky Collins.
In the Tulsa Public School District, Judith Barba won outright in the primary for Seat 2. Barba earned 53% of the vote against two other candidates.
On January 26, 2021, the Oklahoma Supreme Court issued an opinion in Treat v. Stitt, a case regarding the governor’s power to renegotiate state gaming compacts. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Speaker of the House Charles McCall (R) and Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R) who argued that Governor Kevin Stitt (R) overstepped his constitutional authority when he renegotiated the terms for the gaming contracts with the Kialegee Tribal Town and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians. The gaming contracts at issue were enacted under the State-Tribal Gaming Act, which voters approved through State Question 712 in 2004.
Justice James Winchester wrote the opinion for the court. Chief Justice Richard Darby joined Justice Winchester, as did substitute Justice John Reif. Justice Yvonne Kauger wrote a separate concurring opinion and was joined by Justices Douglas Combs, Noma Gurich. Justice Dustin Rowe concurred in the result only. Justice M. John Kane IV wrote a dissenting opinion. Justices James Edmondson and Tom Colbert recused themselves.
Writing for the majority, Justice Winchester said “The Legislature has not authorized the Governor to bind the state with regard to tribal compacts… the compact executed by the Governor contravened state law. The Governor’s powers are limited by the Constitution. The Governor may exercise only the specific power granted. The Governor’s attempt to exceed this authority results in the actions being rendered wholly ineffectual and invalid.”
In his dissenting opinion, Justice Kane said he would dismiss the case for lack of indispensable parties, The Comanche Nation and Otoe-Missouria Tribes, who also have gaming contracts with the state.
Gov. Stitt said that he will not appeal the court’s decision. On January 27, 2021, he issued a statement that said he plans to work with a joint legislative committee to review the gambling compacts.
On December 9, 2020, the filing deadline passed to run for 33 school board seats across 26 school districts covered by Ballotpedia in Oklahoma. Of the 58 candidates who filed in these school board races, 24 are incumbents seeking re-election to their seats.
The primary is scheduled for February 9, 2021, and the general election is scheduled for April 6, 2021. In Oklahoma, school districts cancel primary elections if fewer than three candidates file to run for each seat up for election, and the candidates automatically advance to the general election. Both the primary and general elections are canceled if only one candidate files for a seat up for election, and the unopposed candidate is automatically elected.
The largest school district covered by Ballotpedia and holding elections in Oklahoma in 2021 is Oklahoma City Public Schools. The district served 39,806 students during the 2016-2017 school year.
Candidates interested in running in a special election for a seat in the Oklahoma State Senate had until December 9, 2020, to file. The primary is scheduled for February 9, 2021, and the special election will be held on April 6.
In the District 22 special election, Dylan Billings and Molly Ooten are running in the Democratic primary. Former state legislator Rob Johnson, Darrick Matthews, Jake Merrick, and Keri Shipley are running in the Republican primary.
The special election became necessary after Stephanie Bice (R) was elected to represent Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District on November 3, 2020. Her resignation is effective on December 31, 2020. Bice was elected to the state Senate in 2014. She won re-election in 2018 with 68.3% of the vote.
Oklahoma has a Republican state government trifecta. A trifecta exists when one political party simultaneously holds the governor’s office and majorities in both state legislative chambers. Republicans control the state Senate by a 39-9 margin and the state House by an 82-19 margin.
As of December 2020, four state legislative special elections have been scheduled for 2021 in three states. Between 2011 and 2019, an average of 77 special elections took place each year.