How Oklahoma lawmakers seek to change elections and ballot initiatives
With the 2024 presidential election cycle on the horizon, Oklahoma lawmakers have introduced more than 90 election and voting bills ahead of the upcoming legislative session.
About one-fifth of these proposals are shell bills titled “Oklahoma Elections Reform Act of 2023.” Lawmakers will be tasked with adding more substantive language before the bills are considered.
Legislative committees will begin taking up bills after Feb. 6, when the session begins. Bills face a March 2 deadline to advance out committee in their chamber of origin.
Here are some questions and answers regarding the election bills and how similar proposals fared in recent legislative sessions.
Republicans, who hold a supermajority in both the House and Senate, have introduced at least 80 election-related bills.
Approximately a dozen measures propose additional requirements or restrictions, including eliminating no-excuse absentee voting and forbidding the State Election Board from joining multistate voter-list maintenance organizations.
Another category of proposals seeks to exempt the state from following federal election laws in non-federal elections and mandate state officials to report any election or voting-related contact from the U.S. Department of Justice.
Two bills seek to increase pay and strengthen legal protections for precinct officials. Senate Bill 290 by Warren Hamilton, R-McCurtain, would increase daily compensation for clerks and judges from $100 to $200 per day. Inspectors, who act as the lead official at their precinct, would receive $225 per day, up from $110.
Senate Bill 481 by Dave Rader, R-Tulsa, would classify intimidating or threatening an election official as a felony offense.
Tulsa County Election Board Secretary Gwen Freeman said she has noticed an increase in precinct officials’ complaints of bullying and harassment, with some opting to resign. She said conversations with lawmakers give her hope they will work to support local election officials.
“These people donate their time and their energy to making elections successful, and if they don’t feel safe at their precincts it becomes necessary for us to take measures to make them feel safe,” Freeman said.
House and Senate Democrats have proposed eliminating the state’s straight-party voting option, expanding early voting hours and setting an end-of-year deadline for the state to launch online voter registration fully.
The proposals face steep odds in the Republican-controlled Legislature. Just a dozen bills with Democrats as the original lead author were signed into law last year. None were related to elections or voting.
Rep. Andy Fugate, D-Oklahoma City, introduced five election bills before the Jan. 19 filing deadline. Among them are measures requiring political parties who hold closed primaries to reimburse the state for election costs and subject unopposed state lawmakers to a retention election, similar to what state Supreme Court justices face every six years, with a yes-no vote. Nearly 70% of state House and Senate races up for re-election in 2022 were decided ahead of the November midterm election.
Fugate, who himself ran unopposed for House District 94 last year, said he hopes to spark a conversation on democracy issues.
“I continue to see people, not just in my district but in other places where I talk about these challenges, who are nodding their heads,” said Fugate, who serves as House Democratic Floor Leader. “I’m convinced whether it’s this year or next year or 10 years from now long after I’m out of the Legislature, people will see the light and think differently.”
At least five Republican-led joint resolutions propose adding additional restrictions or requirements for citizen initiative petitions to reach the ballot or increasing the margin necessary for an initiative to pass. Examples include:
- Raising the threshold for state questions to pass from a simple majority to 66%, and limiting state questions to odd-numbered years. (Senate Joint Resolution 5 by Sen. Warren Hamilton, R-McCurtain)
- Requiring initiative petitions to receive a percentage of signatures from citizens in every county in the state. (House Joint Resolution 1027 by Rep. David Hardin, R-Stilwell)
- Requiring state questions that propose an increase in state government expenditures to receive at least 60% of votes to pass. (House Joint Resolution 1031 by Rep. Chad Caldwell, R-Enid)
Because these measures seek to modify the state Constitution, they would require a majority approval from voters upon clearing the Legislature to take effect.
Initiative petition organizers have opposed similar efforts in recent years, saying the state’s signature collection requirement is already among the nation’s most stringent and additional restrictions would stop all but the most well-funded groups from getting a question on the ballot.
Caldwell, who introduced similar legislation in 2021, said the narrow passage of the Medicaid expansion question in 2020 and constituent concerns prompted him to file HJR 1031. He said the proposal would align state questions with school bond proposals, which require at least 60% approval from voters to pass.
“Just a few votes, relatively speaking, here or there can totally and drastically change the direction of the state’s budget,” said Caldwell, who was first elected in 2014 and received 70.8% of votes in 2022. “I think that should be left up to the people to get to decide that this is so much of a priority that we want to redirect resources from pot A to pot B or understand an outcome might be an increase in taxes. But that message becomes a lot clearer when you increase that threshold.”
Caldwell said he could be open to changing parts of the bill, such as including a minimum dollar threshold or modifying the 60% vote requirement.
Hardin, whose district covers a stretch of far northeast Oklahoma along the Arkansas border, said he introduced HJR 1031 to give rural Oklahomans a better understanding and greater input on what reaches the ballot. He said petition organizers have approached him outside of retailers in Oklahoma City but never in his hometown of Stilwell.
“It would put a lot more effort into a state question, but it’s something I think rural people would definitely benefit from,” said Hardin, who was elected to House District 86 in 2018 and ran uncontested in 2022. “And hopefully it could get people more interested in what’s going on with their local state government.”
Unlike Republican-led states such as Texas, Georgia and Iowa, Oklahoma lawmakers have not enacted sweeping voting restrictions in recent years.
The Legislature in 2021 passed a bipartisan bill adding an additional early in-person voting day on the Wednesday preceding a general election. Last year, 14 election-related bills, including measures restricting the use of private funds in elections and authorizing criminal investigations of residences where 10 or more registered voters reside, were signed into law.
The Voting Rights Lab, a nonprofit organization that tracks election legislation nationwide, rated Oklahoma’s actions on voter access bills in 2022 as mixed.
Stephanie Henson, vice president of the League of Women Voters of Oklahoma, said the organization is working to engage with lawmakers about the benefits and importance of expanding voting accessibility. She said the organization hopes the Legislature will expedite the launch of online voter registration and lawmakers and strike down proposals to restrict the citizen initiative process.
“More restrictive stuff can only hurt our voter engagement,” Henson said. “And if you look at the 2020 election, we were already ranked 50th.”
The Oklahoma State Election Board points to numerous safeguards, including a uniform paper-based voting system and a secure network for transmitting results, as beneficial in maintaining a secure election system.
State election officials completed their first post-election audit last summer following the June 28 primary election. The audit found no discrepancy between the certified election results. A review of the November general election results found only two instances where the audit totals slightly differed from the certified results.
“Oklahoma has one of the most accurate and secure voting systems in the entire world,” State Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax said in a press conference last November.
Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.