As Oklahomans have voted to implement Medicaid expansion, legalize medical marijuana and enact criminal justice reforms, the state’s method of direct democracy has drawn heightened scrutiny from the Legislature. 

Arguing that urban voters and wealthy out-of-state groups have too much power over initiative petitions, several Republican lawmakers have filed bills seeking to add new signature collection requirements or increase the vote threshold needed for an initiative to pass. While legislative leaders have opted not to consider the most restrictive measures, bills implementing a new signature verification process and requiring organizers to submit a fiscal impact statement became law in 2020. 

Rep. Mickey Dollens, D-Oklahoma City, said the flurry of bills cracking down on initiative petitions highlights a need for comprehensive changes. Dollens hosted an interim study on Monday examining ways to strengthen Oklahoma’s ballot initiative process. Those informal study sessions don’t generate official reports or policy recommendations but are often used to guide legislation in future sessions. 

Speakers testified that setting a statutory signature verification deadline, extending the 90-day window organizers have to gather signatures and restricting foreign contributions to ballot initiative campaigns would be beneficial reforms. 

Michelle Tilley, a Democratic political consultant and former campaign manager for Yes on 820, said navigating the initiative petition process can prove daunting even for the most well-funded groups. She said the Yes on 820 group, which sought to legalize recreational marijuana and streamline the expungement of marijuana-related criminal records, internally verified their petition signatures three times before submitting them to the secretary of state’s office. 

“This is not some free-for-all where we’re changing things every five minutes,” Tilley said. “Citizens are changing things they feel need to be changed.” 

Despite that, it took more than six weeks for the state to validate the petition under a new signature verification process with an outside vendor, which contributed to the question missing the November general election ballot. The state’s $300,000-per-year contract with Western Petition Systems LLC, founded by pollster Bill Shapard, is up for review at the end of this year.

Cole Allen, a Democracy fellow with the Oklahoma Policy Institute, said ballot initiative requirements fluctuate based on gubernatorial election turnout and have become more cumbersome as the state has grown in population. For instance, an initiated state statute that needed just under 66,000 signatures in 2018 now requires more than 92,000 signatures. 

Allen said extending the state’s 90-day signature collection deadline to 180 or 365 days would give organizers more time to reach out to rural Oklahomans and curtail the influence of outside money in initiative campaigns. Among states that allow voter-initiated statutes and constitutional amendments, Oklahoma’s 90-day circulation period is the shortest. An Oklahoma Watch investigation published last year found that outside spending in initiative races has varied since 2016, with some campaigns receiving millions from out-of-state groups. 

“The 90-day period reached a point in the late 80s and early 90s where the population became too big for petitions to work on a purely volunteer basis,” Allen said. “That’s when we started to see professional signature gatherers come up, which dramatically increased the cost. Extending the time period might relieve some of that burden and relieve the need for money, in or out-of-state, to circulate petitions.”

A proposal to extend the signature collection period gained bipartisan support as recently as 2009. House Bill 2246, which would have extended the circulation window from 90 days to one year and given circulators new legal protections, cruised through the House and Senate with just one no vote. But former Gov. Brad Henry struck down the bill, citing free speech concerns in his veto message. 

Foreign Spending Ban a Possibility 

While Oklahoma lawmakers have focused on out-of-state spending in initiative campaigns, another threat exists from abroad, one expert testified. 

Campaign Legal Center state and local reform counsel Aaron McKean said foreign nationals and corporations have poured millions into ballot initiative campaigns over several years. A November 2021 FEC decision, which ruled ballot initiative races are not elections under federal law, affirmed the legality of these contributions. 

“We don’t have an estimate of the total amount, but we definitely know that it’s growing because these examples keep coming up,” McKean said, referencing a case where an Australia-based mining company contributed more than $285,000 to a Montana ballot measure. It’s unknown if, or to what extent, foreign interests have contributed to Oklahoma initiative races. 

States can and should restrict foreign spending in initiative races, McKean said. A ballot measure on the issue will appear before Maine voters in November.

Asked by Rep. Jim Olsen, R-Roland, if an out-of-state spending ban would be feasible, McKean said a handful of states have tried but federal courts have found such restrictions unconstitutional. 

The 2024 legislative session will convene on Feb. 5, 2024. The bill filing deadline is Jan. 18 at 4:00 p.m.

Keaton Ross covers democracy and criminal justice for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at (405) 831-9753 or Follow him on Twitter at @_KeatonRoss.

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