Democratic lawmaker seeks to reform Oklahoma’s initiative petition process
Rep. Mickey Dollens says people are seeking to undermine the citizen-led process
A Democratic lawmaker is seeking “common sense” reforms to state's initiative petition process. (Photo by Kyle Phillips/For Oklahoma Voice)
OKLAHOMA CITY — Saying some people are seeking to undermine Oklahoma’s initiative petition process by making it harder for proposals to qualify for the ballot or come up for a vote in a major election, a Democratic state lawmaker is seeking “common sense” changes.
Rep. Mickey Dollens, D-Oklahoma City, said during a Monday interim study that he’d like to make it so initiative petitions only appear on general election ballots — when voter turnout is the highest — as opposed to letting the governor pick the election date.
Legislators typically hold interim studies to do a deep dive on policy topics on which they might write legislation.
After Oklahomans in 2020 approved a state question to expand Medicaid, some GOP lawmakers proposed legislation to make it harder for initiative petitions to qualify for the ballot.
Oklahoma’s initiative petition process gives citizens the opportunity to force a statewide vote on any issue.
Dollens also wants the state to look into allowing electronic signature gathering and giving initiative petition campaigns more than 90 days to collect signatures to qualify for the ballot.
Cole Allen, an Oklahoma Policy Institute fellow, told lawmakers the state’s 90-day window is the shortest signature-gathering timeframe in the nation. To qualify an initiative petition for the ballot, a campaign must collect a certain number of signatures from registered Oklahoma voters.
Dollens also said he wants to close a campaign finance loophole that allows foreign interests to spend for or against an initiative petition once it qualifies for the ballot. It’s unclear, though, if any groups or individuals from outside the U.S. have had any financial involvement in state question elections in Oklahoma.
Dollens also proposed imposing a deadline for signature verification that appears geared toward ensuring the Secretary of State’s Office reviews submitted signatures in a timely fashion. Delays in the process last year kept a state question to legalize recreational marijuana from appearing on the November ballot.
Michelle Tilley, campaign director for State Question 820, the recreational marijuana initiative, said when lawmakers are considering changes to the petition process, they should ensure it remains accessible for average citizens.
“There’s a lot of people promoting the fallacy that the initiative process is too easy, and it’s somehow a threat that needs to be managed,” she said. “However, the fact is that the initiative petition is rarely used. Only eight times in the last 10 years has a petition made it to an actual vote of the people.”
Rep. Jim Olsen, R-Roland, who chairs the House Committee on Elections and Ethics, said it was too soon to tell if any of Dollens’ proposals are viable. Democrats are in the minority in the Oklahoma Legislature, and they often struggle to advance their bills.
Olsen said one of his main concerns is out-of-state donors influencing state question elections, although he acknowledged there’s little the Legislature can do about that because political campaign donations are considered a form of free speech.
He also said he wants initiative petition campaigns to have to collect a certain number of signatures from all 77 counties.
GOP lawmakers in recent years have filed several bills to require a portion of signatures be collected in each county or each congressional district, but the bills have stalled.
Republicans say the geographic requirements give rural voters a say in whether initiative petitions should appear on the ballot, but critics of such proposals say they could make it more difficult to qualify petitions for a statewide vote.
“I would like to see the signature gathering to be a better representation of our state,” Olsen said. “As it stands now, I’m understanding that you can hire a bunch of people to go to the Walmarts in Tulsa and Oklahoma City to get what you need.”
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