Opinion: Reforming Oklahoma voting processes could improve democratic engagement

Voter-led initiatives have shaped positive reforms in the state

October 18, 2023 5:28 am

(Getty Images)

Our nation is in an existential crisis.  Democracy is imperiled.  The first three words of the U.S. Constitution are “We the people,” which enshrines the very idea of democracy.

For the first time in our history, the speaker of the House has been removed. Consequently, Congress cannot conduct any of its important business, legislation is impossible, and it is unable to “establish justice, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity…”

The governmental dysfunction evident today is like Lincoln’s metaphor that a house divided against itself cannot stand.

Please allow me to outline remedies that might enable more effective government.

All politics begins on the local level. Here in Oklahoma, some ideas have been floated that if successful could provide a model for others to emulate.

One such proposal is improving the ballot initiative process.

It gives the people an opportunity to approve or disapprove laws beyond the purview of statehouse legislation.

I should note that voters don’t just vote blindly for them willy-nilly. In fact, there have been successful ballot initiatives here that have very much expressed the will of the people in this great state.

For example, State Question 802 addressing Medicaid expansion was a successful ballot initiative. The voters also approved medical marijuana through this process. But Oklahomans resoundingly rejected a recent question on the ballot to legalize recreational marijuana.

However, for all its successes, the ballot initiative has devolved into a process that now has obstacles causing extraordinary difficulties for everyday citizens.

It’s prohibitively expensive for all but large private interests to invest in the effort to place questions on the ballot. If costs were lower, more citizens could afford their chance at bat. It’s neither fair nor good policy to allow large, vested interests with all their advantageous resources that are unavailable to the common people, to trounce the general populace.

Further improvements to the ballot initiative process would include increasing the time limit to obtain signatures from the short 90 days presently allowed to a more practical 180 days. The extra costs the state incurs for calling special elections for ballot initiatives runs into millions of dollars. Placing questions only on the ballots of general elections would be more cost efficient.

Vigilance persists in protecting democracy.

In Wisconsin recently, voters elected a state supreme court justice opposed to gerrymandering. Then their legislators immediately began impeachment proceedings before the elected judge even took a seat on the bench.

Open primaries are another route to participatory democracy.

Texas has them.

We in Oklahoma, however, must register party affiliation in order to vote.

With its closed primaries, Oklahoma has ranked dead last in the country for eligible voter participation. Straight-party voting is a bi-product of the system we use.

The State Election Board has now set up online voter registration, which is good news.

From my viewpoint, and without telling anyone how to vote, an open primary in Oklahoma is viable only with Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), sometimes called Instant Runoff Voting.

RCV has a number of advantages. It reduces costs because expensive runoff elections are unnecessary, and it encourages candidates to campaign on the issues rather than disparaging their opponents in the negative campaigning that is the bane of electioneering.

Initiative petitions empower citizens to make laws. Referendum petitions let citizens veto laws.

Initiative petition process reforms could eliminate the very real threat of bills outright banning ballot or referendum initiatives important to us.

Oklahomans deserve to feel empowered at the ballot box and have their voices heard.

After all, voter suppression efforts often hamper the disadvantaged, the disabled and the disfavored.

Right now, there is a woeful, disheartening crisis at hand both locally and nationally.

Oklahomans deserve better.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Mike O’Rourke
Mike O’Rourke

Mike O’Rourke, born in Houston, graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, and moved to Ardmore, OK in 2002. He retired from a career in commercial construction, and is a consultant in that field. Married 30 years, he has two grown children, each of whom have one grown or growing with their whole life in front of them.