Oklahoma Watch
November 6, 2023
Democracy Watch

Stitt Creates Campaign Finance and Election Threats Task Force

Gov. Kevin Stitt gave his fifth State of the State speech at the Capitol on Feb. 6, 2023. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

By Keaton Ross | Democracy/Criminal Justice Reporter

Three months removed from a contentious election cycle, Gov. Kevin Stitt urged lawmakers to enact more stringent campaign finance transparency laws. 

“Oklahomans deserve to know who is funding political campaigns,” Stitt said during his Feb. 6 State of the State address. “A democracy is doomed when special interests can spread lies and leverage blank checks to buy elections.”

Stitt, who won the 2022 gubernatorial election with 55.4% of votes, was a consistent critic of outside spending throughout his re-election campaign. Most dark money groups are 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations, which can advocate for or against a candidate without being required to disclose their donors. 

One advertisement from The Oklahoma Project, a dark money group that opposed Stitt and supported his Democratic challenger Joy Hofmeister, falsely claimed that the governor regularly commuted from his home in Edmond to the State Capitol building in Oklahoma City. Another claimed he failed to stop Chinese investors from buying up Oklahoma farmland.

Outside groups spent at least $33.6 million in Oklahoma elections during the 2022 cycle, with much of that being poured into the gubernatorial race, according to an analysis from The Frontier. That’s nearly two times what outside groups spent in the 2018 cycle. 

Despite the staggering increase, the 2023 session came and passed without legislative action to reign in dark money spending. The Legislature also declined to boost funding to the Oklahoma Ethics Commission, the state agency tasked with enforcing campaign finance laws, for the seventh consecutive year. 

Heading into a presidential election year, Stitt has called a nine-member task force to study campaign finance and election threats. The task force will “rigorously assess campaign finance, scrutinize foreign investment and combat foreign interference in Oklahoma elections,” according to a Nov. 1 news release from the governor’s office. The task force will release policy recommendations by Jan. 15, three days before the bill filing deadline for the 2024 legislative session. 

While federal law forbids foreign campaign contributions, there’s a loophole in initiative petition elections, which the Supreme Court has ruled do not fall under the federal definition of elections. Experts who testified at a September interim study on protecting Oklahoma’s ballot initiative process said the state should consider new regulations on foreign contributions in state question campaigns. 

In an interview with Fox 25 last week, State Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax said the task force has an opportunity to highlight the state’s election security protocols. Several post-election audits carried out since the June 2022 primary election have affirmed Oklahoma’s ability to quickly and accurately tabulate votes. 

I plan on following up on the task force’s recommendations and how lawmakers approach election policy in the upcoming legislative session. Have story ideas, tips or suggestions? Let me know at Kross@Oklahomawatch.org.

What I’m Reading This Week:

  • Clinton Hospital Reopening With Emergency, Radiology, Lab Services: After sitting vacant for nearly 10 months, the hospital reopened on Oct. 27. Having a hospital in Clinton means residents in the Custer County city and surrounding communities won’t have to drive about 20 miles for emergency room care and some other services. [NonDoc]
  • Ryan Walters Reported $5,000 Campaign Donation a Year Late. It May Cost Him: Walters was supposed to report an Oct. 31, 2022 contribution from the 1776 P.A.C. within 24 hours. His campaign on Friday filed a so-called “last-minute” report about the donation with the Oklahoma Ethics Commission. [The Oklahoman]
  • Stitt Cabinet Official’s Concerns Over Oklahoma Education Agency Finances Prompted Resignation: Katherine Curry, the governor’s former education secretary, said she repeatedly asked for financial documents showing how the agency budgeted and spent money, but the Oklahoma State Department of Education never provided them. On July 26, she resigned from the job. [Oklahoma Voice]

The Top Story

Hossain Ahmadi, 35, and his wife Zahra Eyvazi, 29, worked in the energy sector of Afghanistan’s former government while they studied for graduate degrees in English and urban development at universities in Kabul. (Lionel Ramos/ Oklahoma Watch)

Asylum Relief Elusive for Two Afghan Scholars-at-Risk

Hossain Ahmadi and Zahra Eyvazi fled Afghanistan in 2022 with student visas, which means they don’t qualify for the same resettlement benefits as their approximate 1,850 Afghan counterparts who landed in the state with humanitarian parole a year before. And while others in Oklahoma’s Afghan community qualify for a two-year extension to their parole status, the couple is racing to file for asylum before their visas expire at the end of this year. [Read More]

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