Scrutiny of S.J.R. 37, initiative limiting bill, intensifies

 As a measure to make ballot petitioning more difficult nears a vote on the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, a national leader of initiative rights Wednesday morning issued a strong letter of opposition delivered to every House member.

The legislation to place new signature-gathering burdens on ballot initiative proponents, sponsored by the second-ranking Republican in the state Senate, drew critical scrutiny in the upper chamber early last month. The measure nonetheless secured four more votes than needed for a bare majority.

On the Senate side, with several members not voting, Senate Joint Resolution 37 passed 28-15, but not until after the author, Sen. Mike Schulz of Altus, faced questions from members of both parties. Schulz is the Senate Majority Leader, second in command to Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman of Sapulpa. 

Presently, initiative petitioners must gather a number of signatures equal to 8 percent of the number of votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election. That number represented a reform of the process, shifting the signature numbers away from presidential elections, when turnout is highest. It was intended to ease the burden on petitioning groups. S.J.R. 37 proposes a constitutional amendment that would require initiative petitioners to reach the 8 percent threshold in all five congressional districts. As a practical matter, that means advocates would have to develop five (not one) sets of assumptions about possible “bad signatures,” rather than one. The would mean a hefty increase in signature goals for all initiative petition drives.

Tough questioning of the proposal came from both sides of the aisle, with Clark Jolley of Edmond and Jim Reynolds of Oklahoma City the strongest critics among Republicans, and Andrew Rice of Oklahoma City, the Democratic leader, leading the way for his caucus.

Schulz insists the measure would bring “equality” to the petitioning process, by forcing circulators to work throughout the state. Schulz insisted the bill was “not something I just took on a whim.” Support for his idea came from a bi-partisan majority, including most rural legislators.

Jolley reminded colleagues of last year’s reform to make petition burdens easier, and contended, “I fear we are doing the exact opposite of that today.” Sen. Reynolds told colleagues, “This is a pretty significant bill. We are putting a stronger restriction on the people on Oklahoma, I don’t think that can be debated.”

A knowledgeable initiative activist, a conservative Republican, told CapitolBeatOK, “The bill’s requirement to gather signatures in all five congressional districts would appear to make it almost impossible” to gather sufficient signatures in a timely way.

The issue is now pending in the House of Representatives. Legislators have received a passionate letter opposing the bill from Paul Jacob of Citizens in Charge. Jacob became a familiar figure – and, to many Oklahomans, a hero — when he faced controversial criminal charges brought against him and two other initiative activists over a ballot access dispute.

Ultimately, former Attorney General Drew Edmondson’s attempts to put the ballot activists in jail over the civil dispute attracted national criticism. Eventually, that prosecution was slapped down in the federal courts.

In his letter focused on S.J.R. 37, Jacob, “For nearly a century, the Oklahoma Constitution has recognized the right of state voters to initiate statutory laws and constitutional amendments. Over the years the process has served the state quite well, and just last year Oklahomans voted to make it a little less onerous for citizens to place an initiative on the ballot.

“Ignoring that vote of the people, Senate Joint Resolution 37 would turn around and make it much more difficult and expensive for citizens to make use of their constitutional and democratic check on government. Thankfully, the Oklahoma House of Representatives has the ability to protect the petition rights of Oklahoma voters, and we respectfully ask that you do so by voting ‘NO’ on SJR 37.

“SJR 37 would turn one arduous petition drive into five arduous petition drives by mandating that initiative sponsors meet the highest petition requirement in the nation not only statewide, but also in each of the state’s five congressional districts.

“Supporters of SJR 37 acknowledge that this change will make it far tougher for people to put issues on the ballot, but claim they are trying to stop ‘special interests’ from being able to pass initiatives.

“Last November, Oklahoma voters proved beyond any doubt that they can defeat any initiative, no matter how well-funded, when they downed State Question 744 with a whopping 81 percent NO vote. Thus, Oklahoma voters do not need legislators to protect them from themselves.

“Moreover, while the intent of SJR 37 may be to prevent special interests from having an influence, the measure will actually have the opposite effect: petitioning will become so difficult and expensive that only well-funded special interests will be able to use the ballot initiative process, while average citizens will be squeezed out.

“Large statewide and national organizations can afford the cost increases that will come as a result of SJR 37, but grassroots groups will find their budgets can’t be stretched enough to allow their participation. Therefore, SJR 37 won’t accomplish its stated goal, but will, instead, sadly serve to ground grassroots reform measures.

“Oklahoma doesn’t need more restrictions on initiative petitions, but less. The state already has the highest signature threshold to qualify an initiative combined with the second shortest time period to collect signatures in the entire nation. Only rarely does an initiative qualify for the ballot.

“SJR 37’s restriction on voters’ rights will serve only to cut Oklahomans off from their state government. Oklahoma’s House of Representatives is ‘the people’s house,’ and we ask you to stand with the people of Oklahoma and vote ‘NO’ on SJR 37.”