Law & Principles
Ray Carter | December 10, 2020
GOP leaders support initiative-petition reform
Republican legislative leaders say the state’s initiative-petition process should be reformed so future amendments to the Oklahoma Constitution cannot be sent before voters thanks primarily to funding from out-of-state interest groups that mostly gather signatures in urban areas.
“We want the people of Oklahoma to have that direct mechanism, but it almost feels like and appears that people who are not Oklahomans are trying to push agendas on the state of Oklahoma,” said House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka.
He said greater support should be required from all parts of Oklahoma.
“You can show up to a super-event in one of the urban areas and collect the necessary signatures over a couple weekends to get something on the ballot that’s funded by somebody that’s not here in Oklahoma,” McCall said.
In June, an initiative-petition measure received narrow approval to expand Medicaid to include able-bodied adults, creating an unfunded liability for the state that could total up to $374 million annually, based on a previous state study.
That measure was rejected in 70 of Oklahoma’s 77 counties, and by a strong majority of people voting in-person on election day, but it still passed with a narrow overall majority due to overwhelming support from mail-in ballots, similar to Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s projected win in several swing states in November’s election.
McCall said the initiative-petition process is an important mechanism that allows citizens to directly change the law or constitution, but said the current process is “too easy” and reforms are needed.
Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said he does not think the initiative petition process should be abolished, but that it should be reformed to require petition proponents to show a certain level of support from all parts of the state, not just the urban core, and perhaps require a greater number of signatures for constitutional amendments.
Democratic legislative leaders said they do not support such reforms.
Sen. Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, noted that 102 state questions have gone before voters over the last 20 years, and 55 percent were sent there by the Oklahoma Legislature with the other 45 percent the result of petition efforts.
“Why would we want to make it harder for the people to exercise their right to alter their own constitution?” Floyd said.
Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman, said there has been an increase in initiative petitions “because the Legislature has failed to act on many important issues, and the voters got tired of that and they took matters into their own hands.”
She said ballot measures on marijuana legalization, criminal justice, and Medicaid expansion were all done through the initiative-petition process for that reason.
Virgin said imposing geographic requirements for signature-gathering would leave campaign professionals “really excited” because “that would make it to where I think professionals would be the only ones who would be able to accomplish that.”
“To me, a vote is a vote, a signature is a signature,” Virgin said. “They’re all Oklahoma voters. I, frankly, don’t really care where they come from. It’s going to be on the ballot, and a vote is a vote.”
The four legislative leaders made their comments during a question-and-answer segment at the State Chamber of Oklahoma’s Virtual Public Affairs Forum, held online Wednesday.
State Chamber President Chad Warmington noted the Oklahoma Constitution has become “littered with what, arguably, are statutory issues,” and said the threshold for placing such measures on the ballot is low.
“We need to be very careful about limiting the people’s ability, but I also think that we need to make sure we’re thinking through the process,” Warmington said. “And we don’t want to—in my opinion—bypass you all. I think you are duly elected and you have a duty up there to vet these issues, to rub the rough edges off them.”
Treat said the length of the Oklahoma Constitution, and the issues handled in the state constitution rather than through state law, have left Oklahoma with a document so lengthy and unwieldy it is “almost laughable when you put it up to other documents throughout the world of governing documents.”
He said the flaws in the Oklahoma Constitution have long been noted.
“When Teddy Roosevelt signed our constitution, he said it was not fit for publication when we became a state,” Treat said. “I think that what held true in 1907 holds true in 2020. It’s only gotten worse.”
In contrast, he noted the U.S. Constitution is relatively brief, easy to understand, and not easily altered.
“It’s very hard to amend the U.S. Constitution,” Treat said. “I’m a believer in democracy, but I’m not a big believer in direct democracy because I think that it is easily swayable.”
Director, Center for Independent Journalism
Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.