Oklahoma is paying a company associated with a political polling firm $300,000 per year to verify signatures for statewide ballot initiatives, leading some to question the fairness of the process by which Oklahomans can vote directly on state issues.
Western Petition Systems LLC is now in charge of verifying signatures for State Question 820, which would legalize recreational marijuana for adult users 21 and older. The company was founded by Bill Shapard, whose Shapard Research LLC runs Sooner Poll.
Organizers for an adult-use cannabis state question, Yes on 820, turned in 118 boxes of signatures on July 5 to the secretary of state’s office. That represented more than 164,000 signatures, many more than the 94,911 needed for a statewide initiative election.
Michelle Tilley, campaign director for Yes on 820, said the group has had observers watching the verification at Shapard’s offices in Oklahoma City.
“Our team is watching the count just like we would if state employees were doing the count instead of a vendor,” Tilley said. “And just like in that case, there will be a chance for us to raise any issues after the count is done. In the meantime, we thank everyone involved in the important work of making sure the voices of everyday Oklahomans are heard through the initiative process.”
The group is the first to go through the new signature verification process. Lawmakers in 2020 gave the secretary of state’s office the authority to modernize the process by which the signatures of registered voters who signed petitions are verified. Previously, the office hired and trained temporary workers to verify them manually with voter registration records. House Bill 3826 was one of the few pieces of policy legislation approved in a session shortened by the outset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.
The bill allowed the secretary of state to purchase software to verify signatures with several data points in the state’s voter registration file. Few lawmakers at the time thought that would allow an outside vendor to be involved in the process. The software purchase was exempt from the state’s bidding requirements under the Central Purchasing Act.
Rep. Andy Fugate, D-Del City, said he was surprised to see the verification process go through a vendor. Debate on the House floor centered on the technology needs of the secretary of state’s office and a desire to modernize and speed up the counting process. He called it “absolutely outrageous” that an essential government function has been outsourced.
“I don’t recall anything in the legislation we looked at that would have allowed this to be outsourced to a third party,” Fugate said. “The intent from my perspective was to allow the secretary of state’s office to do this in a better fashion themselves, not to send this out to some good old boy. What are we going to do next, have them tabulate all our election results?”
Secretary of State Brian Bingman, a former GOP leader in the Senate, approved the state’s contract with Western Petition Systems in January 2021. Among the requirements, it calls for the company to create and provide petition documents that can be scanned and to organize training to petition-gathering organizations. The company must also have a warehouse or office facility in Oklahoma City to securely house returned petitions.
Shapard referred questions to the secretary of state’s office. Jeffrey Cartmell, an attorney and counselor to the secretary of state, said the vendor is providing the software but the secretary of state’s office still hires the people doing the verification. Western Petition Systems was picked over a company from Arizona, with the decision based on cost and security.
The contract, which was obtained under the Open Records Act, was recently renewed for fiscal year 2023, which started July 1. The flat annual fee of $300,000 applies no matter how many initiative petitions are filed for verification each year.
“The cost includes all the resources required (except for staffing) and a secure system that is not connected to the internet to carry out and complete a statewide petition verification project,” Cartmell said in a written statement.
Amber England, who ran the successful initiative petition for Medicaid expansion that voters approved in June 2020, said the initiative petition has always been fraught with politics. That’s because the governor appoints the secretary of state and has the final say on when a state question will appear on the ballot. But outsourcing signature verification to a vendor that also has a polling operation injects another layer of partisan politics, she said.
“I think that it was incredibly important for the framers of the Oklahoma Constitution to ensure that voters had the power to take something directly to the ballot and around those people in power,” said England, who owns Strategy 77, a public affairs and political consulting company. “This process just injects more barriers and more politics into a process that is already extremely difficult.”
Nothing in the secretary of state’s contract with Western Petition Systems would preclude Shapard’s polling operation from asking questions related to state questions that may be up for signature verification, Cartmell said. But it could be amended in a later contract if that became an issue.
England said the initiative petition process has multiple opportunities for opponents to challenge or stall the efforts. But it has no statutory deadlines for the secretary of state to count signatures.
As of Sunday, the effort to verify signatures for SQ 820 has taken 33 days. That’s more than the time needed to verify signatures for all but one of the last seven citizen-led state questions that made it onto the ballot since 2016. On average, it took about three weeks to verify signatures for those other state questions. The Legislature can also pass resolutions for issues to come before voters in a statewide referendum.
Some GOP lawmakers, upset with successful initiative petitions to expand Medicaid, approve medical marijuana and reclassify some drug-related felonies to misdemeanors, proposed changes to the initiative petition process. Among them were proposals to require a majority in two-thirds of counties to approve state questions for them to take effect and criminal background checks for petition circulators. None of the proposed changes were successful in the legislative session this year.
Last month, Attorney General John O’Connor’s office rewrote the wording of SQ 820, saying it originally didn’t include a fiscal impact statement and noting a dozen other deficiencies. The attorney general’s office filed the new language on July 26. If it survives any challenges, that will be the wording that appears on the ballot if enough signatures are verified.
“We were pleasantly surprised the attorney general revised the ballot title so quickly,” said Tilley with the Yes on 820 campaign. “We were pleased the process worked the way it should in that instance. We have no plans to contest it.”
Paul Monies has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2017 and covers state agencies and public health. Contact him at (571) 319-3289 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @pmonies.