A package of bills pending in the Legislative Assembly could prevent all but the best-funded groups from asking a question on the ballot through the initiative and the referendum process. ‘Oklahoma, warn experts and advocates.
The Senate is set to consider four joint resolutions that would make it harder to pass or vote on questions of state.
The proposals have already passed the state House of Representatives and could take effect as early as 2023 if approved by the Legislature and approved by voters later this year.
House Joint Resolution 1002 is perhaps the most ambitious. It would require citizen-led groups to collect a set number of signatures in each of the state’s 77 counties.
That would specifically require enough signatures from registered voters to equal 8% or 15% of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election — depending on whether it’s a statutory or constitutional change — in each county.
Currently, signature collections must meet that 8% or 15% target, regardless of where a person lives in the state.
This means that even if signature collectors collected thousands of verified signatures beyond the current requirement, their efforts would be wasted if they failed in any county.
Other proposals would require constitutional amendments to get more than 55% of the vote and make the state auditor responsible for determining the expected costs of state matters.
Professor John G. Matsusaka, executive director of the nonpartisan Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California, said Oklahoma’s initiative laws are already among the most restrictive. from the country.
If these measures are adopted, he said the groups would fight even harder.
“The way I see it, it will only make everything more expensive,” Matsusaka said. “And it could really mean that only really wealthy people or groups will be able to use this process.”
The Legislature’s interest in these proposals follows the passage of several high-profile state questions opposed by the governor and many others in the GOP-dominated Legislature.
Since 2016, voters through citizen initiatives have extended Medicaid to more than 200,000 low-income Oklahomans, turned several drug and nonviolent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, and made Oklahoma one of of the largest and most accessible medical marijuana markets in the country.
Republican lawmakers pushing legislation to make state questions tougher say Oklahomans, especially those in rural communities, should have more information about what’s on the ballot before Election Day. The geographic requirement, they say, will prevent groups from focusing their signature-raising efforts on more liberal areas of Oklahoma City and Tulsa.
At issue is whether Oklahoma’s statehood question process, a cornerstone of the state’s founders’ beliefs in direct democracy and their populist roots, should continue as is or include new hurdles for make voting more difficult.
“If I were an Oklahoma voter, I would ask what problem this is trying to solve,” Matsusaka said. “It’s not that there have been too many questions since I counted and there have only been 10 (citizens’ initiatives) on the ballot in the 21st century, and that’s not a lot at all.”
The road to the ballot
Oklahoma is one of 28 states with an initiative process, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Oklahoma is more restrictive than many.
Based on votes cast in the last gubernatorial election, citizen campaigns for the 2022 election would need nearly 95,000 signatures for legislative changes and nearly 178,000 for constitutional changes.
All of this must be completed within a 90-day window from the time the state approves a petition request.
Matsuska said the 90-day collection period is one of the shortest in the country. Oklahoma’s signature quotas are “top of the line” for states allowing initiatives or referendums, he said.
“I would say it’s harder to use the initiative process than most other states,” he said.
Oklahoma became the first state to adopt the initiative and referendum as part of its original constitution when it was founded in 1907. The rules were initially more restrictive, requiring questions to receive a majority of all votes cast in the election (as opposed to votes cast on the proposal alone). That changed in the 1970s.
According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahomans have voted on more than 400 state issues since the state’s inception. Most of these issues were put to a ballot by the Legislative Assembly through a joint resolution passed by majority vote in each house.
Over the past decade, 25 state questions have been voted on. Only seven were from citizen-led groups, four of whom died: the 2020 Medicaid expansion, medical marijuana in 2018, and two related criminal justice measures in 2016 that turned some low-level crime related to drugs and property from a felony to a misdemeanor.
It seems that no citizen effort will make it to the 2022 ballot.
The only measures filed with the Secretary of State’s office are proposals to legalize marijuana. The collection of signatures has not started as they have been tied up in court for months.
A group calling itself the Oklahoma Historical Society is trying to get a pair of state issues on the ballot, including a constitutional change that would legalize recreational marijuana sales.
Group director Jed Green said the number of legal, technical and logistical challenges already in place prove that tougher rules are not needed.
“It’s very difficult to organize at the level of 77 counties,” he said. “And I think that’s the point of it all.”
Cindy Nguyen, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, agreed. The ACLU Oklahoma Chapter has been involved in a number of State Issues campaigns, including the 2016 Criminal Justice Amendments (State Issue 780) and State Issue 805, which sought to reclassify more criminal charges but failed in 2020.
With financial support from its parent organization, the ACLU was able to hire hundreds of signature collectors to solicit the state and collect tens of thousands of signatures. Nguyen said groups without these types of resources face significant challenges. And if the 77-county requirement were put in place, it would be out of reach for many groups.
“This is a concern because it provides an opportunity for those who are particularly affected by matters of state not only to engage in the democratic process, but also to have their voices heard,” she said.
Oklahoma’s veto referendum process would also be impacted by geographic requirements.
The state allows citizens to try to repeal recently passed legislation through the question of state process. The groups must collect fewer signatures than initiatives, only 5% of the votes in the last gubernatorial election, which would be 59,320 this year.
These have been even rarer since the state requires that all signatures be collected within 90 days of the end of this year’s session.
There have been 20 veto referendums in Oklahoma’s history, the last in 1970, according to Ballotpedia. Several attempts have been made since. Everything failed.
This includes a failed attempt to repeal a 2021 bill that cracks down on protesters by increasing penalties for blocking roads and granting immunity to motorists who kill or injure rioters.
Joshua Harris-Till, a Democratic activist who recently announced his intention to run for the party’s nomination in the Fifth District congressional race, led that effort. Adding geographic requirements would effectively prevent almost any citizen-led referendum from voting, he said.
“A lot of these countries don’t have a convention center that you can line up for outside of these big events where you can get signatures,” he said. “So what they’re trying to do is just make it more expensive and make it, I would say, impossible to get the signatures you need.”
Part of a national trend?
Oklahoma isn’t the only state seeking to make it harder for citizens to ask questions on the ballot.
Kelly Hall is the executive director of the Fairness Project, a progressive organization that helped pass ballot measures in a number of states, including Oklahoma’s Medicaid expansion measure.
She said there had been “an unprecedented attack” on direct democracy laws across the country. This includes attempts to demand a 60% voting threshold in Arizona, mandating citizens to collect signatures from 6% of voters in each of Idaho’s 35 state legislative districts, and an effort by Missouri to increase the number of signatures required.
Hall said she viewed many of these attempts as retaliation for successful state issues that some lawmakers did not support.
“It’s not specific to an issue, but rather where ballot metrics demonstrate a mismatch between what voters care about and what their elected leaders are doing in the halls of power,” she said.
What happens afterwards?
Much work remains before Oklahoma’s proposals can take effect.
They must be heard and passed in the state Senate before getting a final vote in the House. If they make it to the Legislative Assembly, the proposals will be voted on by the people in accordance with the current requirements of questions of state.
Hall said she hoped voters would want to protect their voice. But their passage poses a real threat.
“I think one of the ways our rights are being taken away from us is because they’re wrapped in jargon, hard-to-understand processes and slow attrition of our rights,” she said. things voters are focusing on — the economy, health care, wages — that Oklahoma voters may not be aware of the implications of what a slow attrition of their rights means.
Matsusaka, of USC’s Initiative and Referendum Institute, agreed that voters theoretically wouldn’t want to take power away from them. But it happens.
Florida voters approved a 2006 initiative increasing the votes required to approve a constitutional amendment from 50% to 60%.
“It’s not inconceivable that (the Oklahoma proposals) could pass,” he said. “It could be a low turnout election or maybe there’s no well-funded opposition campaign, it could happen.”