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On left, attorney A.J. Ferate and candidate Darrick Matthews look at candidate Rob Johnson and attorney Robert McCampbell during contestation of candidate hearings Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. Both candidates were stricken from the ballot. (Screenshot)

The Republican primary field for the special election in Oklahoma State Senate District 22 was cut in half today when a pair of candidates successfully challenged each other’s eligibility to seek the seat.

Former Sen. Rob Johnson and US Fleet Tracking executive Darrick Matthews both convinced the Oklahoma State Election Board that the other was ineligible to represent the anvil-shaped district that runs from northwest Oklahoma City to Edmond and Piedmont.

Prior to the start of Wednesday’s hearings, the Election Board adopted rules for the proceedings “in light of the hearings in April” which received attention for their sometimes chaotic nature.

Grandma worried about ‘re-vote in America’

Johnson challenged Matthews first by saying that, for a 10-day period, the self-proclaimed soccer dad had been registered in neighboring SD 41, meaning he had not been registered in SD 22 for the required six months ahead of candidate filing.

Matthews defended himself by saying he had accidentally changed his registration while showing his grandmother how to use the State Election Board website.

“If we are going to throw people off the ballot for trying to help their grandmothers understand the election process, I’m not sure that makes any sense in today’s world, particularly in COVID when we are trying to figure out how to be more in touch with the people that we love,” said A.J. Ferate, the attorney representing Matthews.

Ferate said Matthews’ grandmother was about to move into Matthews’ father’s house but had expressed hesitation because she believed there would be a “re-vote in America” and she wanted to make sure she could still support President Donald Trump in such a scenario.

“After a while, I just pulled out my phone and said, ‘Here’s how you [change your registration],'” Matthews said.

Matthews claimed his phone auto-filled the fields with his former address.

“I didn’t realize until two days later that I had actually processed it,” he said. “After about a week I called the Election Board, they said they would get back to me. (…) It wasn’t until last Friday that I found out there was a 10-day gap in there.”

Johnson’s contestation of Matthews’ eligibility passed unanimously, 2-0. Only two of three seats on the State Election Board were filled for Wednesday’s hearings. Chairman Tim Montgomery and member Heather Mahieu Cline were in attendance, but neither Vice Chairman Tim Mauldin nor alternate member Debi Thompson attended.

‘He lives in his old boss’ she shed’

In the day’s second hearing, Montgomery and Mahieu Cline also voted to strike Johnson from the ballot.

Matthews challenged Johnson’s candidacy by saying he does not reside in SD 22. Matthews’ attorney, A.J. Ferate, presented Johnson’s lobbyist registration and other documents as evidence. He said Johnson lives in the pool house of a former employer.

“He lives in his old boss’ she shed,” Ferate said. “Johnson does not live in Senate District 22, nor does he exhibit any intent with the State of Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Bar Association, or even his church that he does live, exist or reside or have any intent to live in Senate District 22.”

Ferate said Johnson actually resides in Senate District 47.

“He confessed to the state Ethics Commission that his address is actually in SD 47,” Fane said.

While being questioned by his own attorney, Johnson said even though he has not lived in the residence listed on his voter registration card — having sold that home in 2018 — he still voted in Senate District 22 in the Nov. 3 general election.

Johnson said the current home he lives in is not a pool house and is a separate dwelling on a large lot that has its own entrance. He said while he has no formal lease agreement with the property owner, he has been paying $1,000 a month to live there.

Johnson’s attorney, Robert McCampbell, said his client’s intent has always been to reside within Senate District 22 and that his roots there, including the fact he and his father had both represented the district previously, illustrated that his heart has always been closely tied to the district.

“He grew up in Senate District 22, he has always returned to Senate District 22, and his intent was always to be a resident of Senate District 22,” McCampbell said.

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Further, McCampbell said Oklahoma law has always allowed for a loose interpretation and enforcement of residency requirements for prospective candidates. In April, the State Election Board dismissed a challenge of panhandle candidate Kenny Bob Tapp despite Tapp’s admission that he ate 90 percent of his breakfasts in Colorado.

“The law of Oklahoma has been clear that it is a lenient standard because courts and election boards want to let voters decide the outcome of the election,” McCampbell said.

Ultimately, Matthews prevailed in having Johnson removed from the ballot.

SD 22 primary set for Feb. 9

With both Johnson and Matthews booted from the ballot, Republican voters in SD 22 are left with two candidates ahead of a special election Feb. 9 primary: local businessman Jake Merrick and Oklahoma House of Representatives employee Keri Shipley.

Democratic voters will have their own primary in the district between political science professor Dylan Billings and speech pathologist Molly Ooten.

SD 22 was vacated when Stephanie Bice was elected to Congress in November.