Kris Steele

Kris Steele, executive director for Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, talks to State Question 805 supporters.

Rep. John Pfeiffer was frustrated by what he saw on social media in the days after mostly urban Oklahoma voters approved Medicaid expansion by a razor-thin margin last summer.

A barrage of posts criticized, scorned and demeaned rural Oklahomans for what some called voting against their best interests. Medicaid expansion, many experts agree, will help struggling rural hospitals and offer over 200,000 low-income individuals — many of whom live in rural areas — health insurance.

But Pfeiffer, a Republican from Orlando, a small town of under a couple hundred residents an hour’s drive north of Oklahoma City, called it the “they just don’t know what is good for them” argument.

“That is just so condescending to me,” he said.

After five years of sweeping policy changes led primarily by voters in the state’s metropolitan areas, the Republican-controlled Legislature is poised to make substantial revisions to the initiative petition process during the 2021 legislative session.

Lawmakers have filed roughly 30 bills to modify signature thresholds, require financial impact statements and extend the time period to file legal objections against petitions.

One senator has proposed a bill requiring a state question to get 60 percent approval — the rate required to approve school bonds — rather than a simple majority.

Pfeiffer himself is leading some of these efforts and will be pushing for a bill requiring initiative petition campaigns to get a percentage of signatures from all five congressional districts.

Currently, signatures can come from anywhere in the state. A petition aiming to change state law needs close to 100,000 signatures before it can even qualify for a ballot. A constitutional petition would need closer to 200,000.

“When you don’t have to talk to anybody who lives in my part of the state, or, to a greater extent, anybody north of I-40 or west of I-35, frankly, it makes us feel a little disenfranchised,” Pfeiffer said.

Rep. John Pfeiffer, R-Orlando, is carrying a bill during the 2021 legislative session that would change the way initiative petition signatures are gathered in Oklahoma.

Community organizers say many of these changes would make it nearly impossible for citizen-led initiatives petitions to be successful.

“I think (the Legislature) may feel what seems like a loss of power,” said Sundra Flansburg, an organizer with the civic engagement group VOICE. “If we can’t get our legislators to work for us, we have this mechanism to go around them.”

Successful petitions bring policy change

Republican leaders believe getting a state question on a ballot is too easy, that the state’s constitution is now too long and that the current process leaves out the voices of rural voters

“You can show up to a super event in one of the urban areas and collect the necessary signatures over a couple weekends and get something on the ballot that is funded by somebody that is not out here in Oklahoma,” McCall, R-Atoka, said at a State Chamber forum in December.

But activists and organizers shake their heads at the idea that the current process is easy.

“It’s not easy,” said Jan Largent, president of the Oklahoma League of Women Voters. “We supported an initiative petition last year about redistricting. It had two court challenges, then it hung out in the Secretary of State’s office for several months.”

The redistricting petition, State Question 804, was ultimately ruled invaild by the state Supreme Court last year.

A review by The Frontier of initiative petitions filed with the Secretary of State’s Office showed that getting an initiative petition onto a statewide ballot is unlikely.

Once written and filed, petitions go through a lengthy process including potential legal challenges, and signature collection and verification. Depending on the type of petition — constitutional or statutory amendments, for example — organizers must collect signatures equal to a percentage of total votes cast in the last general election for governor.

In the last decade, nearly 40 citizen-led initiative petitions have been filed, but only seven qualified for a ballot, according to the data. Of those, voters only approved four — 11 percent of petitions filed in the last 10 years.

Those four state questions, though, were massive policy shifts: a widespread reclassification of drug and property crimes, legalization of medical marijuana and approval of Medicaid expansion.

And they were approved within just the last five years.

Some lawmakers said the numbers don’t show the whole picture, since many filed petitions are repeated efforts that make it look more difficult to get a petition on a ballot than it actually is.

Regardless, now that citizens continue to successfully shape policy in progressive ways, lawmakers want to have a say.

“My goal is not to make it more difficult. It’s to have more transparency,” said Sen. Lonnie Paxton, R-Tuttle.

Paxton filed a handful of bills he says would make the process more efficient and safe, like requiring background checks for people paid to circulate petitions and a $1,000 filing fee when petitions are submitted to the state.

“When you start having this many, things start getting questioned more as far as what are our procedures?

“One of the most robust initiative petition processes in the country.”

Advocates say the increase in initiative petitions reflects frustration with the Legislature’s hesitancy or unwillingness to tackle important issues.

Flansburg said VOICE helped with efforts to pass Medicaid expansion in 2020 and criminal justice reform in 2016 after failed conversations with lawmakers.

“We had tried to bring voices to our representation, and they were unwilling to do anything,” Flansburg said. “So we shifted energy toward the initiative petitions.”

That shift in focus worked.

It took 25 years — 1989 to 2014 — for Oklahomans to approve six citizen-led state questions (one was later ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court). Voters have approved four state questions between 2016 and 2020.

In the early 1990s, voters approved a handful of state questions regulating the Legislature with required meeting dates and the creation of the Ethics Commission.

Now, after a lull during the 2000s, voters are successfully using state questions to implement policies the Legislature hasn’t tackled.

“In Oklahoma, we have one of the most robust initiative petition processes in the country. I think that’s something that people in the state like,” House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, previously told The Frontier. “We often hear lawmakers who oppose these state questions complain that the language is too broad or goes too far. My response is we had the opportunity to take care of this issue and do it in a way you could have signed off on. But we didn’t.

“That’s not to say that we don’t pass legislation, but when it comes to the tough things, it seems that we continually punt those issues to the voters because we don’t want to come together and find a solution that works.”

Pfeiffer said that perspective has “a nugget of truth in it.”

But in Pfeiffer’s district, constituents voted down criminal justice reform and Medicaid expansion. They say they feel left out of the process, and he feels he has to represent those interests.

“A little bit of it is fear,” he said. “We’ve never been in a situation where two metropolitan areas can overrule the rest of the state.”

Opposition to changes likely strong

The 2021 session will not be the first time lawmakers have attempted to change parts of the initiative petition process.

Last year, House and Senate leadership introduced a bill requiring state question campaigns to disclose financial backers earlier in the initiative petition process.

Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said he believes Oklahoma’s signature threshold for getting constitutional amendments onto a ballot, which is lower than many other states, lures outside groups wanting to test policy ideas.

“There really are billionaires and foundations across the country that target states like Oklahoma because of our threshold, and I think we need to look seriously at that,” Treat said.

An example is State Question 805, a criminal justice reform measure on the November 2020 ballot. Millions of dollars from outside groups were used in the pro-805 campaign, but voters still soundly rejected the measure.

Flansburg, the organizer with VOICE, pointed to lobbyists and outside groups that dole out campaign contributions to lawmakers and are welcomed inside the state Legislature every year.

“Citizens really lack that in a lot of ways, and the initiative petition process is one way that we can have that power,” she said.

Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, has questioned why other lawmakers want to amend the rules for citizens when the Legislature frequently makes use of its own state question process.

Bills passed by the Legislature amending the state’s constitution require a vote of the people. But since lawmakers are representatives of their districts, there is no signature gathering required. Questions referred to the ballot by the Legislature typically pass.

If the dozens of initiative-petition bills filed this session make it through the Legislature, Oklahoma voters will get to decide the final outcome since the initiative petition process is protected in the state’s constitution.

Flansburg said if these increased regulations end up on a statewide ballot, she expects organized opposition would be strong.

“The citizens will be heard,” she said. “You can continue to try to shut down avenues for that voice to be raised, but we’ll keep going.”

The Frontier is a nonprofit, independent news source based in Tulsa. Frontier content is republished in The Transcript through a special content agreement. For more information on The Frontier, visit readfrontier.org.

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