When Oklahoma voters elected in June to expand Medicaid, they further cemented a growing incongruity in the Sooner State.
Oklahoma is a deeply red state with a Republican-controlled government, but year after year voters here continue to pass progressive legislation through the initiative petition process.
In 2016, voters elected to reclassify a number of non-violent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. Oklahoma had seen its prison population swell to the point it had one of the highest per-capita rates of prisoners in the country. After years of inaction by the Legislature, a bipartisan group led by the Republican former Speaker of the House collected enough signatures to get the reforms on the November 2016 ballot and voters overwhelmingly supported it.
In 2018, voters came out in droves to legalize medical marijuana, giving Oklahoma one of the most liberal medical marijuana laws in the country. And last June voters expanded Medicaid, something that promises to bring billions of tax dollars back to Oklahoma to support healthcare for families near and below the poverty line.
Those three laws, which have quickly altered Oklahoma’s landscape, didn’t come from the state capitol. They came from the ground up, with Oklahomans in some cases writing the laws themselves.
With a state Legislature hesitant to tackle some of these issues, the laws were instead passed through the initiative petition process. That process requires the support of more than 100,000 Oklahoma voters just to get the question on a ballot, then hundreds of thousands of votes to get the law on the books.
And time and time again, Oklahomans have pulled it off.
“I think that’s what you’ve seen with these initiative petitions,” JR Day, the founder of OkiePolls, said. “People have stripped the issues down to just the question. It’s a nonpartisan aspect of the Oklahoma constitution that sort of gets the legislative process out of it and I think that allows people to think more freely and vote more freely.”
Forrest Bennett, a 30-year-old who represents a section of Oklahoma City, is one of only 23 Democrats in the state’s House of Representatives. He said that while he thinks it’s a positive that Oklahomans have taken matters into their own hands in recent years, he fears it’s not a tenable plan long term.
“The trend is probably not good,” he said. “We heard from people over and over and over talking about medical marijuana and Medicaid expansion and asking us to get something done. If the Legislature continues to ignore these issues it’s going to backfire.”
Emily Virgin, D-Norman, told The Frontier that the success of recent progressive state questions is an example of lawmakers not being in step with its citizens.
“It’s further proof that the Legislature is out of touch with forward-thinking ideas,” she said. “People are in favor of good policy. They’re in favor of medical marijuana and criminal justice reform and Medicaid expansion, even if the Legislature isn’t … I think that these state questions just continue to reinforce the idea that the Legislature can’t get stuff done.”
Kris Steele is a republican former Speaker of the House who spearheaded the criminal justice reform questions that were made into law in 2016 and has also helped drive State Question 805, which deals with ending some sentencing enhancements and will appear on a ballot this year. Steele talked to The Frontier about an article he read after State Questions 780 and 781 passed discussing the difference between healthy and unhealthy political divides.
“The article gave the example of the political divide between rural and urban, and said that’s healthy. You have (lawmakers) representing their constituents,” Steele said. “The disconnect and divide between elected officials and voters is dangerous. They used Oklahoma and the decision that the people had made (in voting for criminal justice reforms) and decisions made by lawmakers to try and immediately reverse the decision as the main example of the unhealthy divide that exists in states across the country.”
When voters last month elected to accept Medicaid expansion, Oklahoma became the 37th state to do so. But it happened by the slimmest of margins — a little more than 6,500 votes.
Medicaid expansion, unsurprisingly, was most popular in Oklahoma’s urban areas. Only seven of the state’s 77 counties came out in favor of expanding Medicaid, and though a handful of smaller counties also supported accepting the funds, it was primarily the state’s two largest cities that carried the vote.
In Oklahoma and Tulsa counties, State Question 802 was favored by more than 56,000 votes.
“I think it’s really instructive about what can happen in that Oklahoma City and Tulsa can make whatever they want happen,” Bennett said.
The medical marijuana and criminal justice reform state questions were each more popular statewide than medicaid expansion, but, unsurprisingly, they were again more heavily favored in Tulsa and Oklahoma counties.
When votes for and against State Question 780, which reclassified some drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, were tallied, there were 235,053 more yes votes than no votes. Almost 76 percent (178,557) of that difference came from Tulsa and Oklahoma counties.
Likewise, when State Question 788 (medical marijuana) passed in the summer of 2018, it did so by 122,406 votes — 83,815 (68 percent) of which came from Tulsa and Oklahoma counties.
But there are those who feel the power wielded by the state’s urban core is outsized, that hundreds of thousands of rural Oklahomans might be left behind by more progressive votes from Tulsa and Oklahoma counties.
Earlier this year, prior to the Medicaid expansion vote, Rep. John Pfeiffer authored a bill that would have overhauled the state question process that voters in Oklahoma had used to such great success.
Pfeiffer, a Republican from Orlando, Oklahoma, a small town of just over 100 residents about 30 miles west of Stillwater, told the Tulsa World in March that his rural constituents feared being “run over” by interests from larger cities.
“It does scare us in rural Oklahoma that people could prey on emotion and get things passed without working (their) way through this body,” Pfeiffer told his fellow House members, according to the newspaper.
“I understand legislators who say these policies are not ones that people in my district support, but that’s democracy,” Virgin said. “when we’re talking about these policy changes that are probably going to affect everyone, everyone deserves to have their vote counted.”
Pfeiffer’s bill, House Joint Resolution 1027, was passed by the House of Representatives but was not taken up by the Senate before session adjourned, meaning it would have to be re-proposed in a new bill next session if it were to be heard again.
Pfeiffer did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Pfeiffer’s bill would have required initiative petition campaigns to gather signatures from each of Oklahoma’s five congressional districts rather than the state as a whole. As it stands, petitions must gather a number of signatures based on total voters in the previous gubernatorial general election.
“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,” Virgin said. “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. I think it just continues to feed this narrative that legislators can’t get things done.”
Steele said that many ideas labeled “progressive” are actually ideas he believes are attractive to both sides of the political aisle. The key, he said, is to understand that both sides may value the idea in distinctly different ways.
“The secret to success with voters is realizing the issue appeals both to conservatives who might be thinking more about fiscal responsibility, and appealing to individuals on the other end of the spectrum who are focused more on equality and racial disparities and helping Oklahomans reach their potential.
“For some it’s a fiscal issue and for some it’s a human rights issue.”
The process to get a question on a ballot has never been easy, regardless of any proposed amendments to the undertaking.
Medicaid expansion has forever been tied to former President Barack Obama and the Affordable Care Act, both of which have been markedly unpopular in Oklahoma. Former Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin said no to Medicaid expansion in 2012, calling it “unaffordable” and saying expansion “would also further Oklahoma’s reliance on federal money that may or may not be available in the future given the dire fiscal problems facing the federal government.”
Eight years later, Gov. Kevin Stitt echoed those sentiments, proposing his own healthcare plan that he dubbed “Soonercare 2.0.” Soonercare 2.0 was proposed as an alternative to straight Medicaid expansion, but Stitt’s proposal never got off the ground. The coronavirus pandemic took hold in Oklahoma in March. Stitt, facing uncertainty over the state budget, was unable to find funding for his plan.
Though it eventually passed in 2018 by a healthy margin, the medical marijuana state question faced a rocky road to the ballot. Petitioners had tried for years to collect enough signatures, often falling just short of the mark. When enough signatures were finally gathered, Scott Pruitt, then Oklahoma’s Attorney General, rewrote the language for the bill so drastically that he was sued by the petitioners and his rewrite was tossed by the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
And the criminal justice reform state questions were met with pushback from law enforcement agencies and district attorneys before and after their placement on the ballot, and have continued to be maligned and targeted by lawmakers.
“One of the things that I think plays a factor into the disconnect between officials and voters on policy, particularly on criminal justice reform is there are political powers like the District Attorneys Association that exert undue influence at the state capitol,” Steele said. “You have groups that oppose the will of the people, but the influence of the DAs at 23rd and Lincoln is very effective. I think in that setting, having been in that setting myself, you have groups saying ‘Well we’re going to tell people you’re this or that about you.’ I think that a major factor of the dynamics at the Legislature is the undue influence that special interest groups have.”
But it appears the law worked as intended. A study by Open Justice Oklahoma showed that felony charges in Oklahoma fell by 28 percent in Fiscal Year 2018, while misdemeanor charges rose by 13 percent.
And now supporters of those criminal justice reforms are taking it a step further. State Question 805, which would end the use of sentence enhancements for repeat nonviolent offenders, will be placed on a ballot this year, its supporters announced this week.
Sentence enhancements are often used by district attorneys in Oklahoma to put more severe prison terms on repeat offenders. Supporters of State Question 805 say that leads to Oklahomans serving more lengthy prison sentences on average than other states, contributing to Oklahoma’s high rate of incarceration.
Allan Grubb, a district attorney in Pottawatomie and Lincoln Counties, wrote an editorial this week agreeing with SQ 805, saying it would safely reduce Oklahoma’s prison population and save the state millions of dollars.
While SQ 805 will be on a ballot later this year, SQ 804, which would have created an independent redistricting commission, will not.
Supporters of the state question said the commission would have allowed for “more fairly drawn” districts, but opponents argued it would help tilt Oklahoma into a more liberal direction. David McLain, the chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party, has said that SQ 804 would have put redistricting into “the hands of unelected activist judges” and drawn the districts “into positions that accompany the ‘correct’ numbers of urban, liberal, LGBTQ+, or whatever other left-leaning affiliation that might benefit Democrats.”
The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that SQ 804 was not written informatively enough and invalidated the state question. Oklahoma’s Republican-controlled Legislature will redraw districts next year.