Oklahoma initiative petition hurdles already high enough
Some members of the Legislature, apparently weary of citizen-led state questions making their way to Oklahoma ballots, want to change the initiative petition process in ways that would make an already burdensome process more challenging. These efforts are misguided.
In Oklahoma, the number of signatures needed for initiative petitions is tied to the total votes cast in the previous election for governor. Changing the state’s constitution requires gathering signatures equaling 15% of that total — roughly 178,000 registered voters. For statutory changes, the total must be equal to 8%, or nearly 95,000. Veto referendums have a 5% threshold.
Once a petition has been vetted, organizers have 90 days to collect their signatures. They can do so anywhere in Oklahoma.
A measure being considered this session would require petitions to get signatures from each of Oklahoma’s five congressional districts. Petitions seeking statutory changes would have to get 8% of registered voters from those districts. For proposed constitutional changes, the threshold would be 15% and for referendum petitions it would be 5%.
And, those percentages would be based on the number of legal voters in Oklahoma, not on the number of voters in the previous gubernatorial election. Thus, the number of signatures required would be much larger.
Rep. Andy Fugate, D-Del City, has a valid point in arguing against the bill. “Ultimately, it takes power away from the people,” he says.
House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, also has two bills on this issue. One would have signature gatherers get more information from signatories than is already required. Another would require initiative petition campaigns to report their financial backers at the outset of the process instead of after the governor sets an election date for a state question.
“The bills are more about the fact that Oklahoma’s experiencing more activity in that area than it has historically,” McCall said.
The June 2018 primary election ballot included a petition-led state question to legalize medical marijuana. In November 2018, the ballot included five state questions, but just one was the result of a petition drive (the others were sent to the ballot by the Legislature).
The November 2020 ballot may include State Question 802, which seeks to expand Medicaid. It resulted from an initiative petition drive. Another group is seeking clearance for a petition drive to change the way Oklahoma’s legislative and congressional districts are drawn. Other petition drives are possible.
But this is hardly an epidemic. We noted in a November editorial that in the past 30 years, 81 petition drives had been started but just 17 had reached the ballot. The rest either didn’t survive court challenges, didn’t secure enough signatures or were abandoned.
The website Ballotpedia says, “Relative to other states that allow statewide ballot initiatives, Oklahoma’s laws make it very difficult to qualify an initiative for the ballot.” Further impediments are unnecessary.