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Politics and Government

Lawmakers advance proposal to make state questions harder to get on ballot, pass

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Oklahomans for Sentencing Reform
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Kris Steele, who leads Oklahomans for Sentencing Reform, is at the podium during a rally in support of State Question 805 in this February 15, 2020 file photo.

A package of proposals that would make it harder for many state questions to pass, or even make it on the ballot, are moving forward in Oklahoma’s Legislature.

The state House of Representatives approved four joint resolutions Tuesday that would require constitutional amendments to receive over 55% of the vote, make the state auditor responsible for determining projected costs of state questions and install new, tougher requirements for citizen-led initiatives to qualify for the ballot.

The proposals will still need to be heard and passed in the state Senate before getting a final vote in the House. If they make it through the Legislature, the proposals will go to a vote of the people under the current state questions requirements.

Democrats and some advocacy groups have labeled the proposal as retribution for the passage of several high-profile state questions opposed by the governor and many in the GOP-dominated Legislature.

Since 2016, voters through citizen-led initiatives have expanded Medicaid to more than 200,000 low-income Oklahomans, changed several drug and non-violent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors and made Oklahoma one of the nation’s largest and most accessible medical marijuana markets.

Perhaps the most far-reaching of the four state question proposals is House Joint Resolution 1002. It would require citizen-led groups to collect a set number of signatures from each of the state’s 77 counties, instead of the current statewide requirements.

It specifically would require enough signatures of registered voters to equal 8% or 15% of votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election — depending on if it’s a statutory or constitutional change — in every county to get on the ballot.

Currently signature gathers need between 8% or 15% of the state.

That means even if signature collectors gathered thousands of verified signatures beyond the current statewide requirement, their entire effort could be doomed if they fall short in any of the 77 counties.

Rep. Tommy Hardin, R-Madill, who wrote the bill, said he wants all of the state, particularly in the rural parts of the state, to have a say.

“The frustration that some of us have in rural Oklahoma is, especially where I’m at on the border of Oklahoma and Texas, is that our news is shared with Texas and we may not hear about some of these things on the ballot until they are finally printed and sent out,” Hardin said. “I want to give all 77 counties an opportunity to say what’s on the ballot.”

Democrats argued that signatures or votes in the more rural parts of the state should be the same as signatures or votes in Oklahoma or Tulsa county, which have tended to be more liberal than other parts of the state.

Others accused Republicans of purposely trying to block the type of state questions that have passed in recent years.

“I think we can agree there was some state questions that ticked some people off in the room,” said Rep. Regina Goodwin, D-Tulsa, during the floor discussion of the bill.

Oklahoma is one of 28 states with an initiative process, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But Oklahoma’s is more restrictive than many.

Based on the votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election, citizen-led campaigns for the upcoming election would need to gather nearly 95,000 signatures for statutory changes and almost 178,000 for constitutional ones.

All of that must be completed in a 90-day window that starts when the application for a petition is approved by the state.

Rep. Andy Fugate, D-Del City, said this shows that Oklahoma’s initiative process doesn’t need to be changed.

“Would it surprise you to know of the 500 initiative petitions that have been proposed since 1944, only 44 made it to the ballot,” asked Rep. Andy Fugate, D-Del City, during the floor discussion of the bill. “And that is primarily because it’s so difficult to get signatures already today.”

The Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California, a non-partisan educational organization dedicated to the study of the initiative and referendum process across the country, in a report, noted that these types of requirements “can be a deterrent to the use of the initiative process.”

The report goes on to say that over 60% of all initiative activity has taken place in just six states – Arizona, California, Colorado, North Dakota, Oregon and Washington — that don’t have a geographic distribution requirement for the collecting of signatures.

“States with severe distribution requirements like Idaho, Mississippi, Utah, and Wyoming rarely have initiatives on their ballot,” the report stated.

Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.

Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit journalism organization that produces in-depth and investigative content on a range of public-policy issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to www.oklahomawatch.org.
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit journalism organization that produces in-depth and investigative content on a range of public-policy issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to www.oklahomawatch.org.

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