OKC Ward 2 ballot
Prospective Oklahoma City Ward 2 candidate Chris Cowden, right, talks with his attorney, Robert Gifford, prior to an Oklahoma Supreme Court proceeding Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023. (Matt Patterson)

(Update: On Monday, Jan. 23, the Oklahoma Supreme Court declined to assume original jurisdiction over the challenge from Chris Cowden. The following article remains in its original form.)

Chris Cowden’s plea to get on the Feb. 14 ballot as a candidate for OKC City Council Ward 2 will be determined by the Oklahoma Supreme Court in conference over the coming days or weeks.

The Oklahoma County Election Board voted 3-0 to strike Cowden’s name from the ballot in December. That vote came after a challenge from Ward 2 incumbent James Cooper, who is running for reelection this year.

Cowden, 44, filed to run 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.

This morning, Cowden’s attorney, Robert Gifford, told Oklahoma Supreme Court referee Kyle Rogers that his client should be eligible for the OKC City Council election. Referees are tasked with hearing arguments and preparing cases for judges.

Gifford argued the city’s charter can be read in more than one way and that requiring someone to be a registered voter at a specific address for a year is too burdensome for those who might want to run for office.

“I was very impressed with the questions from the referee,” Gifford said following Wednesday’s proceeding. “They were much more detailed to the city. I expected more critical questions of myself. The questions weren’t so much questions of law as they are common sense. Our position is more of an argument for the people and the non-lawyer person who wants to run for office.”

But Rogers said it could take some time for the court to render a decision. In his closing remarks to the presenting parties, Rogers said it could take as long as a few weeks, though Gifford believes a decision will come before that.

“I think the referee said we could have a decision as soon as tomorrow or Friday,” Gifford said. “The court is very much aware of the deadline and when the election is going to happen. I don’t think they’re going to wait and issue a ruling that is going to create too much of an issue, but if that happens the Election Board will have to address on how to get Mr. Cowden back on the ballot. Do they call for a special election alone for his ward and Mr. Cooper and the other candidates, or do they try to rush it through?”

County and city defend processes and charter

The City of Oklahoma City and Oklahoma County were also represented by attorneys Wednesday. Oklahoma County Assistant District Attorney Aaron Etherington said it’s simply too late to grant Cowden relief.

“To change the ballot in any way to include Mr. Cowden as a candidate would require restart of the election preparation processes that affects not only the Ward 2 election but a number of elections,” Etherington said. “Even if the court were to render its decision as soon as tomorrow, the steps that have to be repeated could not be completed until after the February election date.”

Sherri Katz, who represented the City of Oklahoma City, fired back at Gifford’s assertion that the city’s charter is too vague. Katz said the one-year residency requirement is reasonable and helps prevent frivolous candidacies. She also cited 10th Circuit Court of Appeals rulings that back up a one-year voter registration requirement, as well as state statutes that she said clearly show municipalities can set their own requirements for elected office.

“The charter is unambiguous and clear,” Katz said. “It plainly requires candidates for ward offices must be registered to voters at the address within the ward for at least one year before seeking office.”

Cooper campaign: The law is clear

Cooper’s campaign manager, Aaron Wilder, said there is a clear contrast between the law and what Cowden’s attorney is arguing.

“The arguments for the city and the County Election Board and James Cooper’s campaign outline a very clear argument as opposed to a very opaque argument from Mr. Cowden’s attorney,” Wilder said.

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.