Oklahoma considers stiffer petition requirements for state questions
Since 2016, Oklahoma voters have made sweeping changes without the Legislature’s input.
Using state questions, they have voted to reclassify some felonies to misdemeanors, legalize medical marijuana and extend health insurance to an estimated 300,000 poor Oklahomans.
On March 7, voters — not state lawmakers — will decide whether to legalize recreational marijuana for adults 21 and older.
Several bills sponsored by GOP lawmakers would restrict the state’s initiative petition process. Most would ultimately require voter approval.
Sen. Julie Daniels’ proposal to make petition drives more costly and easier to disqualify would not go before voters if it clears the Legislature because it does not modify the state constitution. Republicans pushed it through the Senate Judiciary Committee on an 8-3 party-line vote, making it eligible for consideration on the Senate floor.
Senate Bill 518 gives those seeking to challenge a petition twice as much time to protest — from 10 to 20 business days. It makes applying more costly by adding a $750 administrative fee. It also raises the bar on signature verification, from three to four data points matching against voter registration data.
Initiative petition organizers and voting rights advocates fear the bill would have a chilling effect on initiative petition efforts, particularly those without the money and manpower necessary to fend off prolonged legal challenges.
Amber England, who ran the successful Medicaid expansion campaign that voters approved in June 2020, said she’s concerned there would be greater scrutiny over honest mistakes, such as a voter writing their nickname instead of a legal name on a petition form. That could compel organizers to collect an even greater excess of signatures, England said.
For instance, the Medicaid expansion campaign submitted more than 300,000 signatures to meet a requirement of 177,958 valid signatures.
“I just think they’re trying to make the bar so hard that it’s nearly impossible to do it,” said England, who runs Strategy 77, a public relations and consulting firm that caters to campaigns and advocacy efforts. “But for them, are they changing the process for how they get to put things on the ballot through a referendum? To me, it just smacks of we don’t trust you, voters.”
Daniels contends the changes are necessary to assure voters that the state’s verification process is as secure as possible. During a Feb. 7 committee hearing, she said there is not necessarily a flaw with the state’s current verification process but cited concerns about some signatures being falsified. She also called Oklahoma’s initiative petition process relatively liberal compared to other states.
Daniels ran unopposed to represent District 29 in 2020 and is eligible for reelection in 2024. Among the legislation she has authored this season is a measure highlighting that abortions are legal to preserve the mother’s life in a medical emergency, and in cases of rape, sexual assault, or incest of a minor that’s been reported to law enforcement. Her bill banning gender-affirming care for minors passed the Senate.
“It behooves us to make sure this system is as reliable as possible for the citizens,” Daniels said of her petition legislation. “Tightening up the process at the front ends yields a better product when you go to the polls.”
Initiative petition organizers point to safeguards during signature collection as helpful in preventing fraud. Under criminal penalty, circulators are required to sign an affidavit before a notary public swearing that they witnessed each signature. Some campaigns hire auditors to evaluate the performance of circulators as they collect signatures.
Oklahoma also has one of the tightest signature collection deadline requirements in the nation among states that allow voter-led initiatives, reducing the likelihood that a voter will mistakenly sign a petition more than once. Initiative groups are required to collect the necessary number of signatures within 90 days of the protest period expiring or the state Supreme Court confirming the constitutionality of the measure. Proposed constitutional amendments must receive signatures equal to at least 15% of votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election. Initiated state statutes require 8% and veto referendums 5% to make the ballot.
Just nine voter-initiated petitions have made it to the ballot in Oklahoma since 2010, with voters approving five and rejecting three of the measures. Early voting begins Thursday on State Question 820, which proposes legalizing recreational marijuana for adults 21 and older.
Since 2016, seven out of eight initiative petition groups have used at least some campaign funds to hire signature collectors at an average cost of $8.27 per required signature.
Andy Moore, chief executive officer of the nonpartisan civic engagement organization Let’s Fix This and former campaign manager for an unsuccessful initiative effort to establish an independent redistricting commission in Oklahoma, said the initiative petition process has historically acted as a check of power on the Legislature. In some cases, lawmakers themselves have organized initiative petition efforts when unable to settle an issue with members across the aisle.
Moore said Senate Bill 518 would put grassroots groups at a disadvantage. While most recent state question efforts have relied on in-state contributions, a handful were propelled by out-of-state donors, according to an Oklahoma Watch analysis of campaign contributions published last year.
“You don’t want it to be only the super well-funded groups that can do initiative petitions,” Moore said. “That’s why it’s in the constitution for the people of Oklahoma to do. But they’re making it so we can’t.”
Efforts to restrict the initiative petition process are not unique to Oklahoma. Fearing that abortion rights supporters will rally to place measures on the ballot, Republican lawmakers in Ohio, Florida and Missouri have passed resolutions asking voters to approve new signature collection requirements or increase the threshold for initiatives to pass.
But the outcome of a recent state question in Arkansas raises questions about voters’ appetite for stricter initiative petition requirements. Nearly 60% of voters in the Republican-controlled state decided against Arkansas Issue 2, a legislatively-referred initiative that proposed raising the threshold for proposed constitutional amendments and citizen initiative petitions from a simple majority to a three-fifths supermajority, last November.
Moore said that vote could signal to Oklahoma lawmakers that clamping down on initiative petitions is not worthwhile.
“They [voters] openly see it as an attack to the petition the government,” Moore said.
Five initiative petition efforts are active within the Secretary of State’s office, including two questions that have a signature collection deadline of March 3 at 5 p.m. Unlike some states, Oklahoma does not set a deadline for counting and verifying signatures.
Since 2021, the Secretary of State’s office has outsourced signature verification to Western Petition Systems LLC, a company owned by SoonerPoll founder Bill Shapard. Unusual delays in verifying signatures for State Question 820 last summer caused the initiative to miss the November general election ballot and led some observers to question the fairness of the new process.
Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.