OKC City Council Ward 2 candidate Chris Cowden said he will make an appeal to the Oklahoma Supreme Court after the Oklahoma County Election Board voted 3-0 today to strike him from the Feb. 14 ballot following a challenge from incumbent James Cooper over Cowden’s eligibility for office.
Cowden, 44, filed to run for Ward 2 on Dec. 5. But Cooper challenged his candidacy based on Cowden’s voter registration. Candidates must be registered to vote at their current address for one year prior to filing to run for the OKC City Council, according to the city’s charter.
Even though Cowden said he has lived within Ward 2 at 4505 N. Utah Ave. since 2017, he had been registered to vote at his parents house at 1715 Guilford Lane in Nichols Hills, which is a separate municipality.
Cowden’s attorney, Robert Gifford, told the board that the OKC code on candidate eligibility is too broad.
“The language they use in the charter is that Mr. Cowden must be a registered voter, and he is,” Gifford told the board. “It says that he must be at an address within the ward. He is as well. Now, you can read this in one way — he has to be registered at the address within the ward — or you can read it as he has to be a registered voter, within the ward. You have two different ways that you can read that statute. If the statute can be read in more than one way, it is overly broad.”
Cowden told the board in Tuesday’s hour-long hearing that he had intended to update his registration but had run into difficulty doing so.
“My intent had always been to move my registration address, and I recall a time or two I tried online unsuccessfully in the effort and became discouraged in the effort,” Cowden said.
But that proved to be a tough sell to the three-member Oklahoma County Election Board. Chairwoman Anita DeToy said that, in her view, the city charter is clear.
“The way they wrote it, you said it can be interpreted in different ways? But as a former high school teacher, I’m going to argue grammar and semantics,” DeToy said. “Had they put a period after registered voter or even a comma after registration, that makes sense, and then ‘at an address.’ But it says ‘registered voter at an address,’ so I have to read it straight through. To me, that makes it less ambiguous.”
DeToy also questioned Cowden’s efforts to change his voter registration address.
“Mr. Cowden, you mentioned you had difficulty changing your registration online, and you have lived at that address since 2017,” DeToy said. “But you didn’t have to do it online. I just have difficulty believing for five years plus you couldn’t get your voter registration changed to your address. You could do it by mail, by fax, at the tag agency (or) here. You don’t live very far from here.”
In the end, all three commissioners said it was not their body’s role to interpret intent of the city charter, but to read it as written. In their view, Cowden does not meet the requirements outlined in the charter.
Following the board’s meeting, Cowden said he was disappointed with the decision, which he will appeal to the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
“We wholly believe that the law is on our side, and we’re doing the right thing for the voters of Oklahoma City, especially those in Ward 2,” Cowden said. “We’re disappointed, but we do have other options ahead of us to provide for the relief. Our next step, because elections timing is the essence, is it goes right to the state Supreme Court. They have the option to hear us or not, but like this body, we hope they are open to our arguments.”
Cowden said life got in the way of him changing his voter registration to his current address from that of his parents, which he had used since he was 18.
“I truly tried,” Cowden said. “The reality is everyday living you get distracted. I have a wall in my house that I’ve needed to paint in my house for five years. Just paint the wall. Well, OK, I need to paint the wall. I should have changed registration clearly, but I wasn’t motivated to do so until March when I was put into the ward of James Cooper who, in my opinion, has wholly failed the citizens of Ward 2.”
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Cooper, 40, was not present at the hearing, but his campaign manager, Aaron Wilder, applauded the board’s decision.
“We’re very thankful for the Oklahoma County Election Board for looking at the law the way that it is and upholding the city charter, and we look forward to our primary election on Feb. 14 with the qualified candidates for office,” Wilder said.
Wilder said he learned about Cowden’s address issue while doing due diligence on Cooper’s opponents.
“As a matter of routine, as a campaign professional, as soon as I heard about his candidacy, I pulled his voter registration information, and it came up,” Wilder said. “That’s something I do for every opponent or every anticipated opponent. It’s standard.”
Ward 2 stretches from Northwest 23rd Street on its southern border to Britton Road. It includes Penn Square Mall and the Paseo Arts District.
Alexander DeShazo, 22, and Weston Storey, 32, have also filed to run for the Ward 2 seat. Cooper was elected in 2019 and is running for his second term. Council members are elected to four-year terms and are paid $12,000 per year.