Oklahoma public opinion pollster Bill Shapard believed he could make Oklahoma’s initiative petition process run smoother — and create a new business opportunity for himself. So he pitched the idea to Oklahoma House Speaker Charles McCall, leading to a change in state law that made it harder for citizen-led efforts to get state questions on the ballot. 

Legislation McCall authored in 2020 required the state to verify signatures on petition drives against data from voter rolls. 

The Oklahoma Secretary of State’s office awarded Shapard’s startup company Western Petition Systems a $300,000-a-year contract in 2021 to do the job over another company with years of experience. 

Oklahoma’s Republican-controlled Legislature has sought to make it harder to get a state question on the ballot in recent years after successful citizen-led efforts on criminal justice reform, Medicaid expansion and medical marijuana. Signature verification has added another hurdle. While some other states including Colorado, California and Arizona verify a random sample of signatures, Oklahoma’s new law requires state officials to cross-check each and every signer against three points of voter registration data. 

Shapard believes the state’s process has long needed improvement. Oklahoma’s old method included only a few administrative steps, including manually counting the signatures.

“Is Mickey Mouse is on the list? Do we count Mickey Mouse? When they make scribbles, do we count the scribbles,” Shapard said. “That has been a problem with the initiative petition process since it was crafted.” 

But snags in the new signature verification process for a citizen-led effort to legalize recreational marijuana earlier this year contributed to delays that kept the measure off the November ballot. 

Shapard says the effort was a success and showed his method worked, but signature verification for the recreational pot measure took 48 days to complete, compared with 14 to 22 days for other recent ballot measures before the law change. 

There’s no requirement in state law for the Secretary of State’s office to complete the signature verification process in a timely manner.

In response to The Frontier’s questions, the Secretary of State’s office said the recreational marijuana measure wouldn’t have made it on the November ballot even without delays in signature verification. Other roadblocks also slowed things down, including an early legal challenge that kept the process tied up in court for four months before signature gathering could begin. 

After the delays, taxpayers must foot the bill for a special election on recreational pot in March 2023 that will cost an estimated $1.2 million to $1.3 million. The Oklahoma State Election Board will have to ask the Legislature for supplemental appropriations to help cover the expense. County election boards will also shoulder some of the cost. 

A special election date in early March will also make it more difficult to get voters to show up at the polls, said Ryan Kiesel, senior consultant for the Yes on 820 campaign, which is promoting the recreational pot measure. There’s nothing else on the ballot that day.  

“The amount of work that we would have had to do to make sure that people were going to show up and remember that there was an election on that day (in November) was going to be far different than reminding people that there’s going to be this special election on March 7,” Kiesel said. 

Oklahoma gave voters the right to an initiative petition process in its constitution when the state was founded 1907 to give the people a way to fight back against the powerful interests of banks, mining and railroad companies. Laws intended to keep citizen-led measures off the ballot can keep voters from having a say on important issues in their state, said John Matsusaka, executive director of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California. The organization studies initiative petition laws across the country. 

“The real question isn’t really if there are fraudulent signatures, the question is does this law ultimately circumvent the will of the people,” Matsusaka said. 

Even if some signatures do turn out to be fraudulent, voters have the opportunity to reject unpopular measures at the ballot box, he said. 

How we got here 

McCall’s bill authorized the Oklahoma Secretary of State’s office to buy software to help with signature verification, but exempted the purchase from state competitive bidding rules aimed at providing oversight and awarding government contracts to the most qualified bidders for the best value. 

McCall did not respond to a question from The Frontier about why his bill exempted the software purchase from competitive bidding, but said in a statement that he regularly discusses election issues with constituents and believed the bill helped add security to the initiative petition process.

“That’s something the people of Oklahoma expressed to our members that they wanted, and you can never have an election or petition system that is too secure,” McCall said. “As technology increases, and more interested parties both in and out of the state look to use the petition process as a way to advance statutory goals, ensuring the security of the system is of paramount importance.”

The Secretary of State did receive one other bid for the job from Arizona-based Runbeck Election Services. Runbeck’s proposal was for a five-year contract that would have cost the state approximately $1,680,480 each year. 

House Speaker Charles McCall

“Throughout my time in office, before I was elected, and I’m sure long after I leave, election integrity has been and will continue to be of paramount importance to the citizens of Oklahoma. I have dozens of conversations every year with individuals who want to see the state’s election and initiative processes become more secure. I’ve run bills in the past addressing these issues, and Oklahoma is now ranked 12th in election security. I plan to run more legislation to improve that ranking this year.

We’ve always had a system for submitting initiative petitions here in Oklahoma, and House Bill 3826 just made that system more secure by adding a piece that required verification of all signatures. That’s something the people of Oklahoma expressed to our members that they wanted, and you can never have an election or petition system that is too secure.

As technology increases, and more interested parties both in and out of the state look to use the petition process as a way to advance statutory goals, ensuring the security of the system is of paramount importance.

House Republicans will continue to place a high priority on legislation that will help ensure to Oklahomans that our election and petition processes are fair, safe and secure.”

— House Speaker Charles McCall

Runbeck Election Services told The Frontier it has 200 employees. Since 2017, the company has conducted signature verification for Washington, Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Washington D.C. and Boulder, Colo. 

The Secretary of State’s office ultimately chose Western Petition Systems for a “variety of factors, including cost to the state and data security,” Oklahoma Secretary of State Brian Bingman said in a court affidavit filed in litigation surrounding delays in verifying signatures on the recreational pot measure.

Western Petition System’s local presence in Oklahoma City and ability to offer more support were also factors, the Secretary of State’s office said in written responses to The Frontier’s questions. The company’s contract required the state to provide temporary workers to assist with the signature verification process.

But the Secretary of State’s office was faced with a shortage of workers from its temp agency when it was crunch time to verify signatures for the recreational marijuana measure this summer, according to Shapard and court documents. 

The state hired Shapard’s wife and three adult children to help when some workers didn’t show up. The Secretary of State’s office also pulled in some of its own staff to help as the deadline to get ballots printed loomed.

Pollster Bill Shapard. Courtesy

Michelle Tilley, director for the Yes on 820 campaign to legalize recreational pot, traveled to observe as workers scanned petition signatures. She told The Frontier there seemed to be no clear leadership.

“A lot of times his kids were left in charge, and they were instructing the temporary employees on what to do, making judgment calls,” she said. “(Shapard’s family) was there every day and they did their job, they were good workers, give them credit, but the optics were bad.”

In written responses to The Frontier, the Secretary of State’s office said its staff was responsible and in charge of the signature verification process at all times and was in “constant communication” with the Yes on 820 campaign, but no concerns were raised at the time.

“Ms. Tilley’s portrayal is quite surprising,” Jeffrey Cartmell, an attorney for the Secretary of State’s office, said in a written response. 

Shapard said he and his family went beyond what Western Petition System’s contract required to help finish the signature verification process when there weren’t enough workers to get the job done. 

“I wanted to show proof of concept that this verification process would work,” Shapard said. “And so I had a vested interest in this one becoming successful.”

The fallout

The Oklahoma State Election Board had enough money for two statewide votes this fiscal year, but the addition of another election this budget cycle will require an estimated $850,000 in supplemental cash appropriations, said agency spokeswoman Misha Mohr. The state’s costs include printing ballots, most of the pay for poll workers and overtime pay for State Election Board staff. 

Counties will also shoulder some of the expense. For statewide votes, county election boards pitch in $5 of the $100 a piece that three election officials posted at each precinct are paid. County costs also include postage for absentee ballots, fees for polling places, overtime pay for county employees and hiring part-time employees.

Oklahoma County’s preliminary estimates put its share of cost for the special election at around $95,000. The Oklahoma County Election board will have to ask county commissioners for additional funding to cover the expense, board secretary Doug Sanderson said. 

Cleveland County Election Board Assistant Secretary Bill Pretty said the local cost for the state’s third-largest county could be as much as $20,000 out of the board’s roughly $1 million annual budget.

“If you don’t plan for it, it can be a hit,” Pretty said. “It’s a situation where each county has got to pay a pretty good chunk.” 

Moving forward, the Oklahoma Secretary of State’s office said it is working to make the signature verification process run more smoothly for future citizen-led efforts, including using a new state vendor to provide temporary staffing and doubling the number of workstations to scan and process petition signatures from 10 to 20. 

Shapard and the Yes on 820 campaign both said that more clear deadlines surrounding the initiative petition process in state law would also help moving forward.

The Secretary of State’s office has already received six notices for citizen-led petition drives set to turn in signatures in 2023.