Commentary: Direct Democracy’s rebirth a trifecta?

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Despite our history as one of the American bastions of citizen decision-making, dating back to the state’s populist 1907 Constitution, Oklahoma’s exercise of direct democracy has suffered of late. Since 2000, only three of 24 citizen initiatives have made it through assorted legal and bureaucratic hurdles to secure a place on a statewide ballot.

Government harassment and increasingly burdensome requirements have contributed to the dearth of successful initiative petition drives. In the most notorious incident, for two years, leaders of a drive to limit government spending faced legal harassment from Attorney General Drew Edmondson’s office.

He actually tried to imprison the Oklahoma Three for alleged violations of state provisions requiring that only Oklahoma residents could circulate petitions. It was a bad prosecution, and ultimately bad political karma for Edmondson.

In the first place, it was never clear the trio ever violated the law. In the second place, the residency requirement itself is probably unconstitutional most federal courts to review the question have slapped down residency strictures along the lines of Oklahoma’s

Fortunately, an appeals court ultimately shot down Edmondson’s prosecution, but only after he actually had them manacled before one legal hearing.

With Republican legislative control, a push to reinvigorate the initiative has become serious, with two laws gaining strong bi-partisan support in both chambers.

One measure, Senate Bill 800 would require that challenges to the ballot title and short statement of an initiative (also known as the gist statement) take place before grass roots petitioning begins. SB 800 measure is a direct response to the rising proclivity of courts or supervising state officials to kill initiatives after signatures have already been gathered. The most shocking recent example of this abuse was a state Supreme Court edict that slapped down a qualified initiative designed to bolster the percentage of education tax dollars going to direct classroom instruction.

House Bill 2246, meanwhile, would give activists up to a year to gather signatures, rather than the compacted time frame of 90 days under current law.

In addition to these statutory proposals, Sen. Randy Brogdon of Owasso pushed through Senate Joint Resolution 13, a constitutional measure. The referred measure (sent directly to voters) would establish the gubernatorial elections held every four years as the threshold for petitioning, rather than presidential elections, when turnout is as much as 40 percent higher. (The benchmark has alternated between presidential and gubernatorial elections in recent decades.)

Even though the measure makes the governor’s race the fixed standard, it leaves signature requirements relatively high. Activists would still have to gather valid names equaling 15 percent of voter turnout for constitutional measures, 8 percent for statutes and five percent for popular referenda (voter reconsideration of a legislative action).

Governor Brad Henry said “no” to many GOP bills this year, breaking his personal record for vetoes. He can’t veto the constitutional measure, as that the Legislature’s call. As for the two statutes, as a moderate populist himself Henry should not gamble with Oklahoma’s proud pre-1990 legacy of vigorous direct democracy.

A supporter of the lottery who has proven himself amenable to the growth of Indian gaming in the Sooner State, by signing HB 2246 and SB 800 Gov. Henry can do his part to deliver a tri-fecta — reinvigorating the initiative and referendum process.

Note: Patrick B. McGuigan, a research fellow at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs and managing editor of The City Sentinel, is the author of The Politics of Direct Democracy.