Oklahoma voters on Tuesday soundly defeated a ballot measure that would have made major changes to the state’s criminal justice system. 

A measure that would have funded part of the state’s Medicaid expansion also fell short. 

In 2016, voters elected to reclassify a number of non-violent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. But voters decided State Question 805, which would have done away with sentencing enhancements based on prior convictions for “nonviolent” crimes, was a step too far. 

Kris Steele, executive director for the group Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, said he woke up Tuesday morning believing it would be a tight race, but that the measure would ultimately pass.

While the measure had strong support in Tulsa and Oklahoma Counties, rural voters roundly rejected the measure. 

“I still believe that Oklahomans do not want to be the national leader in disproportionately incarcerating communities of color, I choose to believe that Oklahomans are not satisfied with being the world leader in female incarceration and and protecting a system that includes the gender inequalities that exist currently.” 

Kris Steele, executive director for Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform talks to campaign supporters on election night. BRIANNA BAILEY/The Frontier

State Question 805 was an initiative spearheaded by Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, the same organization that got State Questions 780 and 781 on the ballot in 2016, which reduced penalties for drug possession and other relatively minor crimes and to use money saved on incarceration costs for mental health and drug treatment programs. Those two measures were passed by voters by 58 and 56 percent of the vote, respectively.

SQ 805 would have amended the Oklahoma Constitution to prohibit the use of prior nonviolent convictions to “enhance” a person’s new criminal sentence for a nonviolent crime, so a person cannot receive more than the maximum sentence allowed for that crime by law.

In the run-up to the election, supporters of the measure said it would help reduce Oklahoma’s prison population, while opponents said the measure didn’t take into account some domestic violence convictions that are not considered violent crimes under Oklahoma law.

In the end, the opposition to the state question was too great to overcome. Voters rejected the ballot measure on Tuesday, with around 61 percent voting against it, according to unofficial Oklahoma Election Board results.

A small group of supporters from the Yes on 805 campaign gathered on election night to watch election returns at the Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform offices in a northeast Oklahoma City shopping center near the state Capitol. The group chose the location because its zip code has the highest incarceration rate in the state, Steele said. 

Sarah Edwards, president of the Yes on 805 campaign, told supporters that the group made progress on criminal justice issues in Oklahoma, no matter the outcome of the election. 

“The conversation has changed, and we are changing the culture,” she said. 

Out-of state groups backing criminal justice reform poured millions of dollars into the Yes on 805 campaign. The campaign raised more than $7.2 million in cash and in-kind donations through the end of September, mostly from The American Civil Liberties Union and pro-criminal justice reform group FWD.US, founded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, according to Oklahoma Ethics Commission filings. 

Even with prior sentencing reform, the state still has a long road ahead to reduce incarceration rates, said Oklahoma County Public Defender Bob Ravitz.

Sentencing ranges for many felonies are higher than other states and Oklahoma’s Truth in Sentencing law requires prisoners serve 85 percent of their sentence for many offenses classified as violent before being eligible for parole, he said. 

“State Question 805 is a drop in the bucket on what needs to happen with regards to Oklahoma,” Ravitz said. “We need to have realistic sentencing ranges and realistic policies with regards to sentencing.”

In 2016, Oklahoma votes passed SQ 780, another initiative petition backed by Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform that changed some non-violent drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. 

Tricia Everest, chairwoman of Oklahomans United Against 805, which opposed the measure, said the results show Oklahomans do believe crimes such as domestic violence by strangulation and driving under the influence with bodily injury are violent crimes and should be considered so.

“Oklahomans do want reform, they just want responsible reform,” said Everest, who is a former assistant state attorney general and current chairwoman of the Oklahoma County Jail Trust. “I’m glad Oklahomans believe many of these offenses are violent and we will be able to work responsibly to address the others.”

Everest also said she was happy with the overwhelming vote against the measure, despite the massive fundraising and spending advantage held by the pro-805 campaign.

“Outside interests spending millions of dollars — $45 to $1 in this campaign — can’t speak for Oklahomans,” Everest said. “I’m very grateful Oklahomans want responsible reform, they respect each other and are willing for the stakeholders to come to the table and to continue the good efforts that have been lowering the prison population.”

State Question 814

Though voters in June approved a ballot measure that expanded Medicaid, they rejected SQ 814, which would have funded a small portion of the expansion. 

SQ 814 is a statewide measure that would have amended Oklahoma’s constitution to reduce the amount of funds from tobacco settlements that are allocated to the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust from 75 percent to 25 percent. 

The Tobacco Settlement Endowment Fund, or TSET, has a roughly $48 million annual budget and is funded by tobacco companies who in 1998 entered into settlements with the state or had judgements against them for the health issues caused by tobacco use. 

In 2000, Oklahoma voters approved amending the state constitution to create TSET to oversee the funds from the settlement agreement and fund public health initiatives.

If it would have been approved, the Oklahoma Legislature would have received the remaining 75 percent of the funds paid by tobacco companies to help fund a portion of the state’s Medicaid expansion, which voters approved through a ballot measure on June 30. The remaining 25 percent of money paid to the state from tobacco companies would have gone into the TSET trust fund.

Medicaid expansion goes into effect on July 1, 2021, with an estimated state share of about $164 million. The state’s share of the cost could change depending on how many people enroll. 

Compared to other races and initiatives, there was little in the way of a campaign for SQ 814’s passage or defeat. The measure was defeated on Tuesday night as 58.8 percent of voters rejected it with nearly 97 percent of precincts reporting, according to preliminary results from the Oklahoma Election Board.

Opposition group Vote No on 814 — Campaign for a Healthier Oklahoma, expressed concerns that taking funds from TSET would harm public health initiatives in the state and casted doubt that the Legislature would use the money for health care. 

“Today’s outcome is an enormous win for Oklahomans, who clearly prioritize their health,” said Matt Glanville, American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network of Oklahoma government relations director, in a news release.

 “We are grateful voters recognized they do not have to sacrifice tobacco control programs and cancer research grants to expand Medicaid. The Legislature and Gov. Kevin Stitt know how to fund Medicaid expansion while maintaining the integrity of the trust; they simply need to implement those measures.”