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Lawmakers advance bills targeting state questions, voter registration laws

Oklahoma City resident Eugenia Gay Scanlon fed her ballot into an election machine on Feb. 8, 2022.
Whitney Bryen / Oklahoma Watch
Oklahoma City resident Eugenia Gay Scanlon fed her ballot into an election machine on Feb. 8, 2022.

Oklahoma lawmakers took the first steps towards passing laws that would tighten voter registration laws, give poll watchers more protections and make it more difficult for state questions to get on the ballot or pass.

Two House committees facing a crucial deadline advanced several voting-related bills Tuesday. Bills that fail to get out of committee before Friday risk not being heard this year.

Among the proposals that passed out of committee was House Bill 3677 from Rep. Sean Roberts, R-Hominy.

The bill originally would have required about 2.2 million Oklahoma voters to register and show proof of U.S. citizenship to vote after 2023.

After hearing concerns from Election Secretary Paul Ziriax over cost, constitutionality and burdens it could place on many Oklahomans — particularly the elderly — the committee removed that provision.

Lawmakers did advance a stripped-down version that would set aside at least $1.1 million for a system to verify driver license numbers or the last four digits of Social Security numbers on voter registration applications. It would also create a felony charge for those who remove, obstruct the view or restrict the movement of poll watchers.

Roberts didn’t point to specific examples of fraud in Oklahoma that his bill would prevent. Instead, he falsely and without evidence said the 2020 election was “stolen” from former President Donald Trump and that this would head off problems he’s seen in other states.

“Our republic will fail if we don’t have secure elections,” he said.

Even with the reregistering portion removed, Democrats on the committee questioned the bill.

“We have secure election in Oklahoma and we are very proud we have secure elections in Oklahoma,” said Rep. Merlyn Bell, D-Norman.

She added it was “unfortunate” to continue to hear “inaccurate and tired claims that somehow our federal election was stolen.”

The amended bill ended up advancing on a 6-2 party-line vote.

The House Rules Committee advanced several proposals that could add new hurdles to groups advocating state questions.

These proposals include:

  • House Joint Resolution 1002 (sponsored by Rep. Tommy Hardin, R-Madill), requiring citizen-led groups to collect enough signatures of registered voters to equal 8% and 15% of votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election — depending on if it’s a statutory or constitutional change — in every county to get on the ballot. Currently signature gathers need between 8% and 15% of the state. 
  • House Joint Resolution 1059 (sponsored by Rep. Carl Newton, R-Waynok), requiring at least 55% of the vote for state questions amending the constitution to pass. 
  • House Joint Resolution 1038 (sponsored by Rep. Chad Caldwell, R-Enid), requiring all state questions that have a financial impact on the state to reach at least 60% of the vote to pass. 

All of the proposals, which would be put to a vote of the people if they pass the Legislature, passed out of committee on 6-2 or 5-2 party-line votes.

Hardin’s HJR 1002 could have the biggest impact of the three as community organizers have already complained that Oklahoma’s state initiatives are too strict.

Oklahoma is one of 28 states with an initiative process, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But Oklahoma’s is more restrictive than many.

After filing a copy of the petition with the state and getting the go-ahead to proceed, citizen-led campaigns must collect enough signatures of registered voters to equal 8% of votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election — 15% for constitutional changes. For the upcoming year, this would require nearly 95,000 signatures for statutory changes and almost 178,000 for constitutional ones.

All of that must be completed in a 90-day window.

Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, who was one of two “no” votes on the bill, said she worries it could push out “grassroot organizations and regular folks” from being able to muster the resources to get hundreds or thousands of signatures from each of the state’s 77 counties.

“You would have to have quite a bit of funding and organization to go to each county and get the number of required voters,” she said.

Hardin said he is pushing for the bills so residents in rural Oklahoma have a better understanding of what gets on the ballot.

“At least each county would have the opportunity to know what’s on the ballot before it’s put on the ballo. That’s my purpose,” he said.

The committee votes come as Gov. Kevin Stitt and several GOP lawmakers have voiced concerns that Oklahoma’s state question process should be tightened. Since 2016, several high-profile state questions opposed by the governor and many in the GOP-dominated Legislature.

Voters through citizen-led initiatives have expanded Medicaid to more than 200,000 low-income Oklahomans, changed several drug and non-violent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors and made Oklahoma one of the nation’s largest and most accessible medical marijuana markets.

Brian Davis, with the League of Women Voters of Oklahoma, said he fears this part of a national movement where if policy makers don’t like the results, they try to change the rules.

“They are steps in the direction of minority rule,” he said. “One could argue that if you don’t like what people are doing with taking stuff to a referendum through the state question system, if you don’t like that maybe do your job in this building a bit more diligently.”

A number of other measures that could impact state questions that have yet to be heard this session.

These include proposals to:

Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.

Oklahoma Watch
Oklahoma Watch is a non-profit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state. Oklahoma Watch is non-partisan and strives to be balanced, fair, accurate and comprehensive. The reporting project collaborates on occasion with other news outlets. Topics of particular interest include poverty, education, health care, the young and the old, and the disadvantaged.