Citizen-led ballot measures gaining steam in Oklahoma

Amber England, of Oklahomans Decide Healthcare, talks with the media following a hearing in June before the Oklahoma Supreme Court about Medicaid expansion. (AP Photo / Sue Ogrocki)

OKLAHOMA CITY — Apparently frustrated by years of inaction, Oklahomans increasingly are circumventing the Legislature and instead trying to create laws at the ballot box.

Oklahomans have long had the power to create and change laws at the ballot box. But prior to 2016, they rarely found enough public support to use the state’s initiative petition process.

In the nearly 23 years leading up to 2016, citizen-led petitioners only managed to collect enough signatures to put eight measures before voters.

But since January 2016, voters already have weighed in on five citizen-initiated ballot measures and gave their stamp of approval to three. Those dealt with criminal justice reform and medical marijuana legalization.

A sixth ballot measure — tackling Medicaid expansion — seems all but guaranteed to make the 2020 ballot.

Spike in state questions

Some observers attribute the recent spike in citizen-crafted state questions to an increase in voter frustration. Other factors mentioned include a generalized distrust, while others see them as proof that liberal-leaning, out-of-state advocates are trying to manipulate public policy through the ballot box.

“We like state questions, since they provide a voice for ‘We, The People’ to decide what is best for our citizens,” said Aimee L. Franklin, a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma, in an email.

She said the populist approach of direct democracy alongside representative democracy is deeply valued in Oklahoma history. Votes on state questions often are tangible evidence of compassion and caring, she said.

Franklin said many of the recent citizen-led issues have hit close to home for Oklahomans, and the issues at stake also have faced continuous attention by politicians and the media.

“Other states have taken similar actions and have had successful outcomes for their citizens and for government funding,” she said. “There is a policy diffusion effect, and Oklahomans are now willing to consider new approaches.”

Amber England has knocked on doors and held voter events over the last four years. She first championed the failed state question that would have created a penny sales tax for education. Now, England is pushing to expand health care access for the working poor.

She said she continues to see an undercurrent of voter frustration. A generalized distrust with government is coupled with a belief that Oklahomans’ voices aren’t being heard through elected representatives.

“I think you’re seeing the Legislature punt on big issues,” she said. “You’re seeing the people take it upon themselves to act. Oklahomans want to use their voice to change policy, and our constitution allows us to do that.”

‘Power play'

The increase in ballot measures started after Republicans took control of the Legislature following the 2010 elections, said Dave Bond, vice president for advocacy at Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative-leaning think tank.

“Those majorities have only increased, and so when you look at a lot of these ballot initiatives that have popped up over the last few cycles in Oklahoma, most of them trend toward higher taxes, (the) higher government spending side of the spectrum,” he said.

Bond said supporters of the measures seem to be largely emerging from the left side of the political spectrum. They believe framing an issue and spending millions to advertise will have more success than maneuvering a bill through the state Capitol, Bond said.

He said a lot of out-of-state money is backing some of the current measures trying to make the 2020 ballot. Two other pending measures include a proposal to change the redistricting process as well as an effort to end the use of sentencing enhancements for nonviolent offenses.

In a statement last month, Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, blamed “liberal politicians” like President Barack Obama and former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder for the redistricting initiative that would strip power from legislators.

He said the politicians are using the proposals as a way to support “radical, progressive viewpoints in Oklahoma and other states.”

“This is a redistricting coup, not an attempt at fair maps,” Treat said. “This is a power play by out-of-state liberals in an attempt to force an agenda on Oklahomans.”

Andy Moore, executive director People Not Politicians, an Oklahoma group backing the measure, fired back.

“Citizens using the state's ballot initiative process is not a coup, but a sign that they have lost faith in our government to solve our state's most pressing issues. It’s no surprise that our politicians are using the same old tactics to defend what is an indefensible process," Moore said in a statement.

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