The moral of this story is, don’t leave it up to your county election board or precinct officials to make sure you vote in the correct precinct, especially if you find yourself suddenly running for office.
It could be called a classic rookie error for Phillip Arnold, “and” for Arnold, a miscarriage of justice.
It all depends on what you mean by the word “and.”
Confusing? Yes, but stay with us here as we try to explain.
Arnold, of Harrah, threw in his hat to challenge incumbent Republican Lewis Moore for the District 96 House Seat. He filed for office just hours after the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority unveiled a new proposed route for the controversial Eastern Oklahoma County Turnpike on April 14. A meeting that some left in tears upon discovering their land or homes were among the “rooftops” in the way of the $300 million bond-financed toll road.
No one was challenging Moore who lives in Arcadia and represents a district that stretches from Harrah, Choctaw, Jones, Luther all the way to more populous and more affluent East Edmond.
Arnold, who calls himself a Constitutional Conservative, paid the $200 filing fee, filled out all the paperwork, reluctantly joined FaceBook and became a first-time political candidate. Luther neighbor and fellow anti-turnpiker Amber Polach did the same thing. When Arnold and Polach discussed it, they decided Arnold should go forward to not split the anti-turnpike and EOC votes. Polach withdrew her candidacy.
Just a few days later sheriff’s deputies knocked on Arnold’s door late in the evening and served him with a “Contest of Candidacy” charge filed by Rep. Moore. Being a Thursday evening, Arnold had just one business day to build his defense before a hearing first thing Monday morning.
Moore’s challenge stated: “to file as a candidate for the House of Representatives in any rep. district, a person must have been a registered voter in the district and a resident for at least six months immediately preceding the filing. Mr. Arnold lived in SH 101 as of 3-1-2016. He has not lived in HD96 for six months according to 14 OS 108.”
On it’s face, Arnold knew he could beat this challenge. He moved into his current home on Turene Terrace in Harrah in 2008, clearly in Dist 96. He collected the titles, the utility bills and a signed affidavit from neighbors to prove it in “election court” last Monday. He also brought his $250 cashiers check to pay the election board to answer the challenge.
But the three-member politically-appointed State Election Board never asked for that proof during the hearing, held right before lunch on April 25. They only addressed the registered to vote part of the issue, catching Arnold off-guard. It was his first-time before such a tribunal.
The story is, when the Arnold’s moved 1.25 miles from their old home to their current home in 2008, he kept voting at his usual precinct. Redistricting happened in 2010 (after the US Census). Still, Arnold kept voting in every election at the usual precinct until this year’s Presidential Primary in March.
“At that time, polling place workers stated that I should update my registration and I immediately and without hesitation complied. I had not decided to run as a candidate yet … (but when I did) found myself qualified to the letter of the law,” Arnold told the Election Board.
Arnold unsuccessfully argued the word “and” in the statute was ambiguous.
“a person must have been a registered voter in the district and a resident for at least six months immediately preceding the filing.”
“As it pertains to the wording of the statute, I meet both criteria to the letter of the law. I am a registered voter in such district. Additionally, I am a resident residing within such district for at least six months. The ambiguity of this poorly worded law is a perfect example of why I am running for office. Laws should be clear and understandable by those they are meant to govern … while voter registration is not a specific complaint made by Mr. Moore, one meaning is clearly advantageous to his candidacy … a ruling in Mr. Moore’s favor clearly puts the outcome of the whole election in the hands of this review board.”
The Attorney General’s representative at the hearing called it an interesting argument “but the court has always interpreted that as requiring both requirements for six month period.”
Then a Board member echoed the AG.
“Well Mr. Arnold, you make an interesting point. I’m just going to make an observation here. I do not see the same ambiguity in that law that you do. There’s been a number of cases that have been resolved over the years on this matter in this room and to my knowledge they have never found that ambiguity that you have found in it. So I will defer to counsel here to pass interpretation of the law. So unless something comes along to change it for me that you don’t meet the requirements defined by statute … I move that we find for the petitioner (Moore).”
The vote was unanimous; Arnold was stricken from the ballot.
Any recourse? An Election Board spokesman said the only recourse is taking the matter to the Oklahoma County Courthouse and filing a lawsuit.
Arnold said he was told hiring an attorney (unless one wants to take on his case pro bono) would cost an estimated $10,000. Since both Arnold and Moore are Republicans and would face off in the June 28, 2016, primary, Arnold said the effort would be too expensive and futile to campaign and fight in court simultaneously, and “we are not for wasteful spending of money,” he said.
Still, the whole issue leaves him angry. He admits he was a long-shot to win, but still, the competitive spirit takes over and he was getting comfortable with the idea of running a race to get to the State House. Maybe next time, he says.
Arnold said he has always been a watcher of politics but kept it more at the Washington level. “I gave local politicians the benefit of the doubt. But when this turnpike issue came up, it scared me and got me off of the couch,” he said.
“It awoke something visceral in me to try to help the voiceless out here – the 85-year-old widow, the veterans and the neighbors who have nowhere to turn to get answers or to stop this turnpike,” he said.
State Senator Ron Sharp also filed “Contest of Candidacy” charges against his two opponents. Harrah attorney and Independent Frank Sturgill dropped out of the race, while Republican Brooke McGowan of Choctaw beat Sharp in her Election Board hearing. Read about that battle over at Sooner Politics.
The Luther Register is arranging interviews with Moore, McGowan and Sharp to post soon. As luck would have it, we had an excellent interview with Mr. Sturgill who has since withdrawn his senate candidacy. Sturgill, an attorney, spent an interesting career in diplomacy serving in Northern Iraq (where he spent his 70th birthday) and brings a unique perspective to government. Not sure how many state lawmakers have been involved in a roadside IED explosion, or bunked in a room that had been sprayed with bullets, all while trying to work out peace and infrastructure issues. Fascinating and inspiring.
Sharp from Shawnee now only faces McGowan in the June primary.