An Election of Firsts

The Oklahoma primary on June 26th, 2018, will go down as one of the most iconic in state history for a number of reasons, some good and some not so much. First, a record number of voters showed at the polls at just under 900,000. That’s greater than the number of votes cast in the 2014 general election. Second, seven of the eight Republican races for statewide office will go to the August run-off. Third, a record number of incumbents lost their primaries, though some have survived to the run-off and ultimately may make it to the November ballot.

Let’s start with the not-so-good. Those of you who follow the work of the Catholic Conference know we were among the very first organizations to join the coalition opposing State Question 788. The reasons were many, and we won’t retry that case here. But suffice it to say we believe the approval of medical marijuana in Oklahoma, as written, portends some very negative repercussions despite whatever positives might come of it in terms of legitimate medical relief.

As we reported in a post immediately after the election, the Conference is pushing for important regulations that will protect the public from many of those negative consequences in order that medical marijuana will mirror the implementation and regulatory framework in states that followed a more prudent path to legalization.

Among those regulatory proposals are:

1. Specific regulations that confine distribution to capsules so manufacture of medical marijuana can be controlled (similar to other states).

2. Tightened medical licensing requirements that will not allow anyone who has gone through limited medical training to write scripts.

3. Regulations that stipulate a strict set of medical circumstances that qualify ‘legitimate medical’ (not simply headaches or general ‘pain’).

4. Right-to-grow stipulations limited to those with medical conditions so severe that prescription refills will not suffice (virtually no one should qualify).

Also among the not-so-good results from the primary were the loss or embattlement of some very reliable legislators. We won’t name names, but the Conference has enjoyed very good relationships with and relied on the leadership of a good number of legislators who may not be coming back next year. The problem we increasingly face in our republic is a dual challenge with voter apathy and conversely with what we might call ‘anti-incumbentitis’. That challenge is just as it sounds.

While we increasingly have fewer voters who take the time to educate themselves on the most important issues of the day (not to mention low voter participation in local elections), we see the ire of our citizenry being more easily piqued by a polarization of the issues (largely by social and traditional media). This is a dangerous combination.

When we have a confluence of events like we’ve witnessed over the last year — budget crisis, teacher walk-out, and a pending election — voters quickly get impatient with highly complex issues which they do not fully understand. The result is that that ire gets vented the only way it can: via an election. And that element, more than any other, has contributed to the defeat of quite a few incumbents, some of whom haven’t been around long enough to earn that ignoble designation of ‘career politician’.

The danger that this phenomenon presents — along with term limits that are a tad too aggressive at 12 years — is being played out in Oklahoma right before our eyes. After the November elections nearly half of the members of the House of Representatives will be new, most of whom will need at least a full term to learn how the legislative process works. This breeds more dysfunction, misunderstanding and, thus, frustration among the voters. It’s a dangerous political cycle that has no easy end in sight.

But not all is lost; there were many good outcomes in the primary election. Among them were some talented legislators and challengers who won their primary contests and will be the favorites in November. We’ll be working closely with those prospective members to outline some initial legislation to address concerns including criminal justice reform, pay-day lending, tax reform, education choice, the sanctity of life and many others.

With one final month left in the first year of life for the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma, we could not have picked a more politically volatile context in which to begin operating. But where there are great challenges therein are greater opportunities. We’ll continue to work closely with elected and appointed leaders to promote human flourishing and Catholic Social Thought in the state of Oklahoma.

–Brett Farley is a convert to the Catholic Church and serves as Executive Director for the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma