Recent sad headlines in the Tulsa World about the Tulsa Public Schools budget reduction recommendations brought back memories from my days/years as a candidate for (1976, 1980 and 1984) and member of (1980 to 1986) the Tulsa School Board when school consolidations were front and center as the district’s leadership dealt with the realities of declining enrollment. I experienced first-hand the challenges the TPS community will now experience in response to Superintendent Gist’s recommendation to consolidate schools in west Tulsa. The headlines also brought back memories of my actual encounter with likely real voter fraud in my school board election, not the kind that Crybabies like the OCPA may tout, but never document, to support voter suppression.
My first campaign in 1976 evolved out of great frustration by the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association with the school board and then Superintendent Bruce Howell. Back then Tulsa board elections were based on an election ward only primary to nominate two candidates who then squared off in a school district wide general election. As a candidate you had to have enough support in your own area to make the final, but then had to appeal to voters throughout the school district to win the general election. No more than several hundred to a couple of thousand would vote in the primary ward elections, whereas the general election turnout was ten to fifteen thousand. I ran close, but not close enough, in 1976, losing to incumbent Mary Warner, so decided to try again in 1980.
In 1980 Larry Zenke was superintendent and he had healed the wounds with TCTA so my 1976 raison d’etra (four years studying French have to mean something) had largely evaporated. Instead the cause celebre (OK, I’ll stop) was declining enrollment. Tulsa Public Schools enrollment had peaked at 80,115 for the 1968-69 school year, then the double whammy of baby-boomer demographics and court ordered desegregation brought about a rapid decline over the next decade to under 50,000 and under 45,000 by the 1984-85 school year. After a few more years of slow decline TPS enrollment bottomed out and has remained fairly stable I think at around 40,000—about half of its peak.
The financial reality of losing almost half the district’s student population in just a few years was compelling so Superintendent Zenke and the Board, including my opponent Mary Warner, had embarked on an aggressive program to reduce the number of schools in operation. The poster child for this very stressful time of decisions was the closing of Mason High School which had opened just five years earlier after being approved for bond funding when increasing student enrollment and annexation were still the expected norm.
Nothing motivates parents to become active politically than threatening closure of their neighborhood school. I didn’t have to say I was opposed to closing schools, because incumbent Warner was already on record supporting school closings, I just had to say I would keep an open mind and study each decision. I truly wasn’t a cynical politician, knowingly exploiting citizens’ emotions, because I was too naïve and too academic. I just knew people were concerned and thought if I studied and thought enough I might come up with a better answer—wrong. Still as the campaign progressed I had these enthusiastic pockets of support around schools that were on the hit list. Two of them were Wright Junior High and Stevenson Elementary.
Both were closed later that year, over my objections as a new board member. The process Superintendent Zenke had developed established a citizens’ area council around each remaining high school. When a school fell below the enrollment threshold set by the school board—225 for elementary, 450 for junior high, and 825 for high school—then the area council needed to make a recommendation. The political brilliance of this process was that, as a result, advocates for schools with adequate enrollment would coalesce around a recommendation to close the under-enrolled school, thus creating a voice in support of consolidation that offset the natural voice against school closings. Also the process resulted, I think, in the Webster council being the first to recommend moving to a K-5, 6-8, 9-12 configuration as a way to keep Webster above 825, in turn sacrificing an elementary school, Porter.
The Wright building a couple of years later was proposed to be sold to Sooner Federal Savings and Loan, but I listened to a talented local city planner, Gerald Wilhite, who maintained the better play was to move the students at neighboring Holmes Elementary into the Wright school facility which was further into the residential neighborhood, and market the Holmes property as commercial frontage at 45th and South Peoria. That logic prevailed; Tulsa Ballet and other businesses are in the Holmes building today; Sooner Federal went bankrupt in the S & L crisis of the late 80s; and Wright Elementary still serves the neighborhood. The Stevenson facility at 46th and South Irvington is part of the Islamic Center of Tulsa and also houses its Peace Academy school for children.
After a pretty vigorous two-month campaign I went to bed election night, Tuesday, January 22, believing I had lost by 160 votes out of 12,000 cast. The next evening my father and I decided to go over the election returns we obtained from the county election board, precinct by precinct, of which there were 181. We noticed right away that I handily lost two precincts, namely #60 and #108, for which the polling places were Stevenson and Wright respectively, which made no sense given the support I had due to their proposed closings. We also knew that each polling place was required to post at that site the election results printed from its ballot counting machine. Either that night or the next morning we checked the site results posted at each and found discrepancies, that in fact I had won each precinct by wide margins. It turned out that the data entry at the election board had dropped the “1” from the hundreds place for my vote total at precinct 60 and only entered the remaining two digits, costing me 100 votes. The votes for precinct 108 were not entered at all, instead replaced, by data entry error, with the results from precinct 8, which was won by Mary Warner and therefore counted twice.
I collected the sites’ printout information and went to see Harmon Moore, then Secretary of the county election board. They readily acknowledged their errors and when the final count was certified the following day, Friday, it was 6006 for Mary Warner to 5998 for Gary Watts, a margin of only 8 votes. At that time, and for several years after, the procedure for voting in school elections was surprisingly loose. Polling place officials were not given registered voter lists as was done then, and now, in all other elections. Rather the only requirement to vote was that an elector must sign the poll book along with their address. That signing and writing of the address was each voter’s statement that they were qualified to cast a vote, i.e. registered to vote in that election district. I had been surprised to learn how loose school elections were when I ran in 1976 and had even tried to generate some publicity for myself by addressing the issue before the school board during the 1980 campaign. So I knew enough to know that out of 12,000 votes cast there had to be at least 8 that were not valid.
I went to see attorney friend Bill Wilkinson, then a partner with the firm I later worked for, Riggs, Abney et al, while on the Tulsa City Council. We had already organized volunteers to start reviewing voter records at the election board and had found many who were not registered, whose names were illegible, or whose registered address was outside the school district. We filed a petition on Friday, after the certification of the results, alleging irregularities. Mary Warner countered with a petition for a recount of all precincts. Our volunteers, organized by my wife Linda, worked around the clock and checked at least half of those who had voted.
At the court hearing the following week vote counting machines were brought into the courtroom and all 12,000+ ballots were recounted; the result was 6011 for Warner and 6000 for Watts. Our burden had increased to 11 because the law requires the challenger to prove at least as many irregularities as the margin of victory, meaning that logically the court cannot determine with mathematical certainty who won. We then presented our evidence and proved: 5 Osage County and 14 Tulsa County registered voters had cast ballots but did not reside within the boundaries of Tulsa Public Schools (which is within Tulsa and Osage counties): 21 votes were cast by persons who had been removed from the voter registration rolls; 50 votes were cast by persons for whom there was no voter registration record available; and, my favorite, two votes were cast by voters registered in Rogers County who also happened to be related to a sitting school board member. Most of these votes were likely cast by well-intentioned persons who thought they had the right to vote—and were readily permitted. Some were likely cast by persons who knew better and were trying wrongly to affect the outcome—Rogers County…really!
Having surpassed our mathematical burden several times over Judge William Means ordered that a new election be held. Before an election date was set by Governor George Nigh, he appointed Mary Warner to the Oklahoma Board of Affairs, which, I think, then was the state’s purchasing authority, and she withdrew from the school board contest leaving me the only candidate and the de facto (Latin) winner, my election a fait accompli (couldn’t help myself). As my friend the late Danney Goble reminded me after winning a second term on the school board in 1984, I couldn’t claim a “reelection” victory because I hadn’t been “elected” the first time.
My scanner broke
School board election laws were subsequently changed, in 1988 I think, and have since followed the same, reasonably secure process we follow for all other elections. Two take-aways: first, I’m unaware of any similar proof of voter fraud (my case was showing irregularities though likely fraud also existed) in any Oklahoma election conducted by our normal process, and anyone trying to suppress voter turnout by various means should bear the burden of showing fraud is a real problem before we buy into it. Second, Oklahoma’s voting system where every vote has a separate paper record and the machines are merely a tallying device, is an excellent system and protection against hacking mischief and other real concerns; had Florida used Oklahoma’s system in 2000 there’d have been no “hanging chads” and the outcome could have been determined with certainty. We Okies do some things right.
As always lunch on me for the first to ID the photo locations.