Initiative petition process is vital to Oklahoma’s democracy: Lawmakers should keep it accessible

Oklahoma’s lawmakers must keep our democracy strong and stop putting forward legislation designed to diminish the power of the initiative petition and state question process in Oklahoma. In 2020, Oklahomans passed State Question 802 to expand Medicaid access in Oklahoma, continuing a years-long pattern of approving people-centric ballot initiatives. In response, the Oklahoma Legislature has since heard numerous bills to make the state question process less effective. This has been part of a larger national push to make direct democracy (such as the state question process) less powerful, which is a concerning trend. 

As it currently exists, the initiative petition process in Oklahoma is an effective and secure way for citizens to make the changes they want to see — and vote down the ones they don’t. It exists as both a tool for everyday citizens to have their voices directly heard on the issues that matter most to them, as well as an important check on our lawmakers to ensure that legislative action aligns with the will of the people. Making the initiative petition process less accessible hurts Oklahoma’s democracy. Our lawmakers should continue to protect the state question process and allow Oklahoma voters to directly voice their opinion on policies that affect their lives.

The state question process works and is secure

The state questions process has a proven track record for giving citizens a direct voice in our state’s democracy. Despite this, lawmakers have increased their attempts to make it more difficult for citizens to put initiatives on the ballot. They have also proposed raising the approval requirements for these state questions to pass. Senate Bill 518, filed in the 2023 legislative session, aimed to allow for a $750 filing fee for initiatives, lengthen the time allowed to contest initiatives in court, and increase the number of data points needed to verify signatures. The bill’s author argued that this bill would be a “pro-active” move to ensure the security of the citizen initiative process. However, the process works as is, and this call for increasing security seems to be a solution looking for a non-existent problem. While this bill passed the Senate, it was not heard in its House committee.

Currently, the state question processes allow voters to act directly to change policy. It also requires petitioners to clear some hurdles, including two separate periods where the petition can be contested in court, collecting a high number of signatures in a short amount of time, and verification of the signatures by the state. This process can be extremely costly for petitioners from covering legal fees and paying for enough signature collectors to meet the extremely tight turnaround time. For example, the Yes on 820 campaign spent nearly $4.8 million to advance SQ 820, which would have allowed for recreational marijuana and reformed parts of Oklahoma’s criminal justice system. Additionally,  the Yes on 802 campaign spent more than $5.5 million on legal fees, signature gathering, and campaign materials to promote Medicaid expansion. The high financial barrier of entry already restricts the number of filed petitions that make it to the ballot. Those that do, however, undergo a rigorous verification process to ensure that the collected signatures accurately reflect the will of Oklahomans to vote on the proposed initiative.

Historically, the Oklahoma Secretary of State’s office would verify signatures internally. However, the Secretary of State passed the process to a third-party vendor, Western Petition Systems LLC, for SQ 820. This contract costs the state $300,000 per year no matter how many initiative petitions are filed for verification in any given year. Despite this high cost, the vendor was unable to process the signatures for SQ 820 efficiently, and the computer program the company used routinely produced errors, according to the SQ 820 campaign. Comparing the timeline to State Question 802, which was approved in June 2020, SQ 820 moved at a much slower pace; the state verified nearly 300,000 signatures in 11 business days while Western Petition Systems LLC verified nearly 117,000 signatures in 30 business days. The private contractor took nearly three times as long to verify a third of the signatures the Secretary of State’s office was able to accomplish for SQ 802. 

After the signatures were eventually verified, the proposed state question proceeded to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, where no contests were filed that challenged the genuineness of the verified signatures. In spite of the inefficiency of the vendor-led process, SQ 820 made it to the ballot, demonstrating that the  issue of recreational marijuana was of significant interest to the people.

The organizers of SQ 820, like all previous citizen initiatives, filed their initiative, worked with the Secretary of State’s office to ensure their proposed changes were constitutional, collected signatures, had them verified, and proved in the Supreme Court that their process aligned with the Oklahoma Constitution and statutes. Once on the ballot, the people of Oklahoma voted no. The process worked as intended, and the people’s will was directly heard.

If lawmakers were truly interested in making the signature collection and verification processes work better for Oklahomans, they could consider extending the signature collection period to be more in line with other states with a citizen-led initiative system. Currently, Oklahoma has the shortest collection timeline, allowing 90 days for signature collection, compared to the national average of roughly one year. Further, legislators should consider bringing the signature verification process back to the state to ensure both efficacy and cost savings for taxpayers. 

Despite low turnout, the state question process remains important

The March 7, 2023 election for SQ 820 saw a turnout of just 1 in 4 registered Oklahoma voters, which marks the lowest turnout for a state question in the past 10 years. Despite  low turnout on this single state question, the initiative petition process remains an integral part of Oklahoma’s democracy and should be protected. Polling data from 2022 indicates that 9 in 10 Oklahomans want to protect their access to the initiative petition process. This overwhelmingly demonstrates that Oklahomans view the initiative petition process as an integral part of our state’s democracy.

The March 7 vote was the most recent example of Oklahoma’s low turnout problem, which limits the effectiveness of the democratic process. SQ 820 was the only state question vote since 2005 that did not take place with another state election, and one of only three to not be placed on the ballot for a November general election in the last decade. Since 2016, state questions on general election ballots have had significantly higher turnout than state questions placed on a non-general election ballot.

General elections in November have much higher turnout due in part to the high levels of media coverage and voter outreach by campaigns, the state, and non-profit organizations. Primaries and special elections, however, receive much less attention; as a result, they experience lower turnout. Turnout data reported by the State Election Board show that the March 2023 special election had less than half the turnout of general elections since 2016. The State Election Board does not provide official turnout rates for general elections before 2016 or any primary elections. However, approximations indicate that the June 2018 and June 2020 primary elections, which had SQ 788 (medical marijuana) and SQ 802 (Medicaid expansion), respectively, had significantly lower turnout than November general elections in the same year but higher turnout than the March 2023 special election. 

The SQ 820 organizers had targeted the November 2022 general election for voters to consider the state question. Had the signature count been as efficient as previous years, the state question could have been approved in time to appear on the November 2022 ballot. However, the delay prompted the governor’s decision to place SQ 820 on a special election, which significantly drove down turnout from what it would have been,had the target date been reached. While it is unknown whether or not the outcome of the election would have changed, it is clear that the extremely low turnout for the SQ 820 special election is an outlier. It does not indicate that Oklahomans lack interest in state questions or distrust the process of the initiative petition.

The initiative petition is important to Oklahoma’s democracy

The initiative petition process is a key part of Oklahoma’s democracy and should remain accessible to all Oklahomans. The framers of the Oklahoma constitution understood the importance of this when they called the initiative “the first power reserved to the people” in Article 5. The state constitution ensures that the people have an avenue through which they can create, approve, and revoke statutory and constitutional changes directly, without the interference of the Legislature. This works to both balance and compliment the powers of the Legislature and other branches of Oklahoma’s government. By granting the people this right, the state constitution ensures that citizens remain the ultimate authority over their own lives.

Oklahomans have used this power judiciously to make the changes they wish to see in this state. Oklahomans have: created an independent Ethics Commission to protect the government from corruption and competing interests; limited the state’s ability to raise taxes; passed crucial criminal justice reform; and expanded Medicaid access among many other state questions that have passed. They have also used their power to vote down policies and changes they did not want to see such as raising the state sales tax and, most recently, recreational marijuana. 

The legislature should keep the initiative process accessible

The initiative and referendum process allows Oklahomans to propose and vote on changes to statute and the constitution that directly affect their lives. This is an integral part of Oklahoma’s democratic process that not all states utilize. As such, Oklahoma’s lawmakers should work to keep the process effective and protect the people’s access to it. The Legislature made the right call by stopping SB 518, one of the most recent attempts to make the state question process harder. Lawmakers should continue to stop bills that would create more hurdles and reduce the accessibility and efficacy of the initiative petition process. Having the Secretary of State retake control of the verification process would be a positive step in ensuring that signatures are counted and verified efficiently and accurately. It also would represent savings for taxpayers. The state should also work to increase voter turnout through policies that make voting more accessible such as implementing online voter registration, expanding early voting opportunities, and allowing for same day voter registration. Furthermore, the governor should refrain from placing state questions on their own election dates in order to ensure better turnout. Democracy in Oklahoma is better served when citizens know they have voice in their government and the surety that their political will is honored. 


Cole Allen joined OK Policy as a Policy Fellow in August 2022. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a master’s degree in International Studies as well as a bachelor’s degree in International Studies with minors in Religious Studies and Middle Eastern Studies. During college, Cole was a research assistant at the Center for U.S.-China Issues and the Center for Cyber Governance and Policy. He also interned for the U.S. Department of State Diplomat in Residence for the Central United States. Cole hopes that his work at OK Policy will help make Oklahoma a more just and equitable state for all its residents. When he is not working, Cole enjoys cooking Italian food, playing Dungeons and Dragons, and following OU athletics.

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