Just Say Yes: Oklahoma voters have a history of affirming most state questions

Photo by Asja Boroš / CC BY 2.0
Photo by Asja Boroš / CC BY 2.0

Oklahoma voters will decide seven state questions in November on subjects ranging from agriculture to the death penalty to the use of public funds for religious purposes. Of the seven questions, three were placed on the ballot through the initiative petition process, while four were referred to the ballot by the Legislature.

What does history suggest about the likely outcome of this year’s ballot measures? OK Policy looked at the results of all state questions in Oklahoma since 1989 using data collected by Ballotpedia.  The results are rather surprising. Of the 83 state questions submitted to the voters in the past 25 years,  65, or 78 percent, have been approved. Fewer than one in four have been rejected.

Within this overall tendency to approve ballot measures, two significant patterns stand out. First, voters have been much more supportive of ballot measures referred by the Legislature than citizen-led initiative petitions.  Eighty-four percent of legislatively-referred ballot measures have been approved (60 out of 71), compared to just 42 percent of measures put on the ballot through the petition process (5 out of 12).  Secondly, voters have become much more supportive of state questions in recent years. From 1989-2002, 67 percent of ballot measures (30 out of 45) passed; since 2004, only three of 38 measures have been defeated, for a success rate of 92 percent.

Of the three measures defeated since 2002, two were initiative petitions — SQ 723, which proposed an increase in the fuel tax, and SQ 744, which would have required education to be funded at the regional average. The only legislatively-referred state question to be defeated since 2004 was SQ 754 in 2010, a defensive measure that was placed on the ballot as an effort to counteract SQ 744 by stating that the Legislature would not be required to make funding decisions based on a formula.


One might well imagine that voters’ instincts would be to vote no on ballot measures, especially in the frequent instances where the questions are obscure, confusing, or controversial. Instead, the results show the exact opposite tendency: Oklahoma voters seem to trust the Legislature to put before them measures that are worth approving. This has  been especially true since 2004, during the era of growing Republican legislative dominance. At the same time, voters have been much more skeptical in regards to citizen-initiated petitions, which have been rejected more than half the time since 1989.

Several of the defeated measures called for tax increases. The only outright tax increase that the voters have approved since 1989 was SQ 712, a tobacco tax increase approved in 2004 that was referred by the Legislature. That year, the voters also approved legislatively-referred questions allowing a state lottery and gaming compacts that were similar to initiative petition measures that were defeated in the 1990s (see the complete list of questions and results here).

So what, if anything, does this portend for the measures on the ballot in November? If history is a guide, the four legislative referenda — on the death penalty (SQ 776), the Right to Farm (SQ 777), allowing public dollars for religious purposes (SQ 790) and alcohol law reforms (SQ 792) — would all be strongly favored to pass. Meanwhile, the three questions that made it to the ballot via initiative petition — the sales tax increase for education (SQ 779) and the two criminal justice reform measures (SQ 780 & SQ 781) — face tougher odds. But perhaps Oklahoma voters  will buck history this year. A July Sooner Poll showed  the three initiative petition proposals all faring well, while a plurality of those sampled said they opposed changing the Constitution public dollars to be used for religious purposes.

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Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

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