OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – In a Senate Judiciary committee meeting Tuesday, lawmakers voted affirmatively for Senate Bill 518, pertaining to the state’s initiative petition process.
If passed, the measure could require additional requirements for citizen initiative petitions to reach a ballot.
“I think it gives more confidence [that] the initiative petition process is done in a way that gives citizens the confidence that it’s all been done properly,” said Senator Julia Daniels, (R) Bartlesville.
Daniels, who authored the bill, said her decision to petition for the changes was based on increasing voter interest.
“Tightening up the process at the frontend yields a better product on the backend when we go to the polls,” she said during the Committee hearing.
“It’s not as diffiicult to get on the ballot in Oklahoma as it is in other states [and] I just want to make sure want to make sure our process is above board when citizens do take part in the initiative petition process,” she added.
The measure sailed through the committee affirmatively, 8-3, and proposes several changes, including an increase in certain filing requirements, requiring additional time for protests or objections, more personal information required from filers and a $750 filing fee, which lawmakers say could assist with the administrative process.
Oklahoma’s current initiative petition is protected in the state’s constitution and it is one of twenty-four states with citizen initiative processes, according to the National Council of State Legislatures.
View the current state process here.
“There’s not necessarily a flaw, but I want to make sure we can reassure citizens that the initiative petition process is handled in such a way that they can have confidence that it’s authentic,” said Daniels.
Currently, under state law, Oklahomans can “initiate statewide legislation via ballot measures in the form of either initiated state statutes or initiated constitutional amendments”.
Previously, voters have approved citizen ballot initiatives that effected criminal justice reform, expanded Medicaid, and legalized medical marijuana.
The author of the bill, Senator Julie Daniels, (R) Bartlesville, said the proposed changes are being done to protect voter interest.
While Senate Bill 518 sailed through Tuesday’s hearing, it did not come without debate.
Senator Mary Boren, D-Norman, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, cited concerns over an increase in cost and a decrease in security.
“This all sounds pretty on brand for Oklahoma to expect more to get less productivity, less quality of product, and actually spend more money and take more time for less quantity and less quality,” said Boren in an interview with KFOR Tuesday.
“By farming out the verification process to an outside vendor without us understanding what security mechanisms are in place and without a performance bond or something similar that Oklahoma voters don’t have any assurance that this is more secure for them. And yet we might be paying more money in taking more time to do the verification,” she added.
“But the thing that really concerns me is the verification of signature changes. Last year, Oklahoma decided to farm that out to an outside vendor, and we did that for the most recent initiative petition that’s going to be on the ballot in March. And what we found out through that process is that there was significant delays in getting those verified signatures, and reports show that the vendor was relying upon temporary workers.”
“[The vendor] had to rely upon their own family to help them complete the contract. And it was a no-bid contract as well. So this bill adds another variable to that has to be checked,” she continued.
“How much time will it take to add variables to the verification process and how much money [is] that going to take and how many more workers [will] they need to add one more variable? I’m hopeful that [Daniels will take] those concerns seriously [before] this bill moves forward,” she continued.
The founder of Oklahoma United for Progess, a bipartisan group that champions voter empowerment for all, said Senate Bill 518 could affect the rights of all voters.
“While it’s not our primary mission, we do have concerns about restrictions for that process,” said Margaret Kobos, citing the organization‘s primary mission to effect the political climate to increase voting access.
Learn more about Oklahoma United.
“Senate Bill 518 relates back to the voice of the citizens, which is baked into our Constitution. In Oklahoma, [we] want to have this relationship between the people and government. And the pipeline of the citizen ballot initiative is a direct way to do that,” she added, while noting the state’s historical effort at government accountability.
“The people who drafted our Constitution wanted to make sure that we had this accountability to the people, she said.
“We’re just hearing a lot of people don’t feel like their voices matter. And when you have a Senate committee that is trying to dampen the voices of people, I just think you’re confirming their beliefs… they will stay home and they won’t be engaged,” she added.