State lawmakers have pushed through two bills adding additional hurdles to the initiative petition process as part of a Republican-backed response to successful citizen-led ballot measures on Medicaid expansion, medical marijuana and criminal justice reform. 

Gov. Kevin Stitt signed Senate Bill 947 into law last week requiring state question organizers to include a fiscal impact statement for voters to read in future ballot language. If a proposal would affect the state budget, the statement must identify a potential funding source. 

The Legislature also finalized amendments to House Bill 2564 this week, which sets out a detailed procedure for recounting state question ballots. 

It’s currently illegal to recount votes on state questions, though Oklahoma’s voting machines have a nearly nonexistent margin of error, state Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax explained to lawmakers earlier this year. 

The bill would allow for an automatic recount of extremely close elections and for the governor and attorney general to request a recount. The bill will now be sent to Stitt’s desk for approval.

“This is nothing more than a way of showing people that we are going the extra step for transparency purposes and to have more confidence in the election process,” said Sen. Marty Quinn, R-Claremore, one of the bill’s authors, during a previous committee meeting. 

At least 30 bills filed this legislative session aimed to make the state question process more stringent. But Rep. John Pfeiffer, R-Orlando, said he’s not surprised most of the bills failed or were delayed during the legislative process. 

Many of the bills had similar language. Three different bills dealt with fiscal impact statements and eight bills would have required more than a simple majority of voters to approve a state question. About 20 bills that would have amended the state’s constitution have been delayed until the 2022 legislative session.

This included one of Pfeiffer’s bills that would have dramatically changed the state’s initiative petition process by requiring campaigns to get a percentage of signatures from all five congressional districts rather than from anywhere in the state.

Any bills to change the state constitution would also require approval from voters in a statewide election, which isn’t possible between now and the next legislative session anyway, Pfeiffer said.

“This is still a topic that’s very important to my constituency,” he said. “So we’re going to continue to move forward and represent our folks and continue working on it next year.” 

Organizers with various civic engagement groups believe legislators have sought to change the state’s initiative petition process in response to the narrow passage of State Question 802 last summer, which required Oklahoma to expand Medicaid. Most Republican lawmakers were strongly opposed to expansion and are still undecided on how the state will fund $164 million in expansion costs.

The push to substantially revise the state’s initiative petition process came after five years of sweeping policy changes led by voters in the state’s metropolitan areas, which has worried rural lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Legislature. 

Pfeiffer, along with several other lawmakers, said the current process allows for rural voters to be overruled by urban voters on huge policy issues like Medicaid expansion, medical marijuana and criminal justice reform.

Some Republican lawmakers argued that it is too easy to get a state question onto a ballot and that outside interests are influencing Oklahoma voters.

But it’s already unlikely for a state question to get on a ballot, according to a review by The Frontier, and organizers said some of the proposed changes would have made it nearly impossible. 

Sundra Flansburg, an organizer with the civic engagement group VOICE, said the group was “somewhat relieved” that so few of the proposed measures made it through. 

She said citizens have tended to use the initiative petition process only after trying for years to get the Legislature to act on important policy issues. Instead of helping citizens exercise their rights, she said, lawmakers tried to make it more difficult. 

“We would greatly prefer that our representatives devote themselves to listening and responding appropriately to our interests,” Flansburg said. “When they don’t, however, the citizens of Oklahoma have shown that we will use our tools.”

Additional reading
Lawmakers target Oklahoma’s initiative petition process after uptick in successful state questions.