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Outside groups spent $2.3 million on Oklahoma elections in 2023

Gary Corn, 74, inserts his ballot into the voting machine during a special election on the adult use of recreational marijuana in Oklahoma, March, 7, 2023, at a Del City Community Center polling station.
Lionel Ramos
/
Oklahoma Watch
Gary Corn, 74, inserts his ballot into the voting machine during a special election on the adult use of recreational marijuana in Oklahoma, March, 7, 2023, at a Del City Community Center polling station.

Politically involved nonprofits and committees without contribution limits spent $2.3 million to influence Oklahoma voters in 2023, rivaling the $2.95 million candidates put toward campaign expenses.

State ethics rules cap candidate committee contributions at $3,300 per election. In contrast, outside groups are allowed to accept and spend unlimited amounts to advocate for or against a candidate or issue so long as they don’t coordinate with candidates. State and federal law does not require politically involved nonprofits to disclose their donors.

Approximately 90% of the outside money was spent to support or oppose State Question 820, a ballot initiative proposing legalized recreational marijuana and streamlined expungement of some marijuana-related convictions that appeared before voters on March 7. More than 60% of voters statewide rejected the question.

The Yes on 820 campaign spent $2.07 million in the first quarter of 2023, Ethics Commission records show. Several local and out-of-state groups that support criminal justice reform, including Action Now, Inc., the Just Trust for Action and Schusterman Family Philanthropies, contributed upwards of $100,000. The Protect Our Kids No 820 campaign spent just $273,000 and relied on donations from individuals and local business advocacy groups.

The vast remainder of outside money was poured into the Oct. 10 Republican primary for State Senate District 32. Several groups spent upwards of $225,000 to air advertisements and send mailers opposing Dusty Deevers, an Elgin pastor and businessman who won the primary and, two months later, the general election.

Dark money spending was not prevalent in the Senate District 32 special election or House District 39 special primary, both held Dec. 12. Ethics commission records show independent expenditures totaled just $2,500 in both races combined.

As outside spending in state elections has accelerated, the Ethics Commission has compiled evidence of outside groups intentionally misleading voters, outgoing director Ashley Kemp told Oklahoma Watch in June. She said persistent underfunding of the commission could cause campaign violations to go unchecked during the 2024 election cycle. The agency has operated on a flat $687,000 annual budget since Fiscal Year 2017.

“You have people coming in and spending a million dollars, which is more than our annual appropriation by a lot,” Kemp said. “To take a campaign finance case to trial would eat up a significant portion of our budget.”

Gov. Kevin Stitt signed an executive order on Nov. 1 establishing the Campaign Finance and Election Threats Task Force. The nine-member group of election officials, gubernatorial and legislative appointees will issue a report of reform recommendations to the governor by Jan. 15, three weeks before the start of the 2024 legislative session.

Stitt was a frequent critic of dark money advertisements targeting him during the 2022 gubernatorial election. In an October 2022 interview with Oklahoma Watch, he said he’d support federal legislation to require politically involved nonprofits to disclose their donors.

“I would love for Congress to change those laws, or at least make it transparent,” Stitt said. “If you want to get in and try to influence an election, let’s let ‘em know who they are.”

Seven election dates are set for 2024, including the March 5 presidential preferential primary election. Candidate filing for legislative seats up for reelection is set for April 8-10.

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

Oklahoma Watch is a non-profit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state. Oklahoma Watch is non-partisan and strives to be balanced, fair, accurate and comprehensive. The reporting project collaborates on occasion with other news outlets. Topics of particular interest include poverty, education, health care, the young and the old, and the disadvantaged.
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