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History of Initiative & Referendum in Oklahoma

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As of mid-2013, 396 citizen initiatives had been proposed in Oklahoma since the first such initiative was put forward in 1908. (That first initiative--Initiative 1, State Question 5--failed at the ballot box.) Of the 390 initiatives proposed in Oklahoma between 1908 and 2012, only 86 made it to the ballot. Of those 86 initiatives, 39 passed and 47 failed.

In the 20-year period between 1992 and 2012, only eight citizen-sponsored initiatives made it to Oklahoma's ballot. Two of those eight initiatives--Initiative 358 and Initiative 362--were efforts to expand gambling. In the 15-year period from 1998-2013, only three citizen initiatives have made it to the ballot in Oklahoma.

Numbering system for Oklahoma initiatives

Since the very beginning in 1908, the government of Oklahoma has numbered all ballot measures consecutively, calling them all "state questions." At the same time, the government has separately and consecutively numbered all proposed citizen initiatives and legislative referrals. As a result, for example, Oklahoma Initiative 7--the seventh initiative proposed in the state--is also known as "Oklahoma State Question 15" because, counting both legislative referrals and initiatives, it was the 15th statewide question to be placed before the state's voters.

Early history

Robert Latham Owen

Efforts to see to it that the Oklahoma Constitution included a provision to allow citizens to place initiatives on the ballot were begun by Theodore Sturgis of Perry, Oklahoma. Sturgis founded the Direct Legislation League when Oklahoma was still a territory, in 1899--eight years prior to statehood.

The I&R movement in Oklahoma soon picked up a formidable champion: Robert Latham Owen, who became the state's U.S. senator. Through the efforts of Sturgis' growing League, 102 of the 112 delegates elected in 1906 to Oklahoma's founding constitutional convention were committed in writing to supporting I&R. By an overwhelming majority, in 1907 the convention voted 80 to 5 to include I&R in the constitution. Oklahoma's I&R provision required that for any ballot measure to pass, it must be approved not just by a majority of the ballots cast on the proposition, but by a majority of all ballots cast in the election.

First successful initiative

The state's first successful initiative--Oklahoma Initiative 7 (1910)--appeared on the Oklahoma ballot in a June 11, 1910 special election. It proposed two questions: (1) Shall a permanent state capitol be established, and (2) if "yes" on the first, shall the capitol be at (a) Guthrie, (b) Oklahoma City, or (c) Shawnee? It passed, and voters chose Oklahoma City by a wide margin. However, the Oklahoma Supreme Court overruled their decision owing to the ballot's deviation from the single-subject rule. Nevertheless, Oklahoma City ultimately became the permanent state capital.

Other historical Initiatives

In the August 1910 primary, Oklahomans passed Oklahoma Initiative 10, an initiative requiring a literacy test as a qualification for voting, which included a "grandfather clause" that made it apply solely to blacks. The U.S. Supreme Court (223 U.S. 347) struck down the measure as unconstitutional. Yet the election had been unfair for another reason as well: racist state officials, instead of printing "yes" and "no" on ballots, printed in small type: "For the amendment." Anyone wishing to vote against it was supposed to scratch out those words with a pencil. If they left their ballot as it was, it was counted as a vote in favor. In some precincts voters were not even provided with pencils. Casting further doubt on the accuracy of the 1910 vote count was a "literacy test" measure placed on the ballot by the legislature in the 1916 primary, six years later: voters rejected it by a 59 percent margin.

On the 1910 ballot, voters rejected Oklahoma Initiative 11, an initiative to allow liquor sales in cities, which had been prohibited in Oklahoma’s original constitution. It was the first of several Prohibition-repeal initiatives. The Oklahoma humorist Will Rogers would later say, "Oklahomans vote dry as long as they can stagger to the polls." Indeed, liquor was so plentiful that voters in 1914 passed an initiative to make "drunkenness and excessive use of intoxicating liquors" cause for the impeachment of elected officials.

In 1912, a majority of the voters favored one initiative to require the direct election (by the people, instead of by state legislators) of U.S. senators, and another to move the state capital to Guthrie. The first was superseded by passage of the Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified the following year, while the second failed to win a majority of all ballots cast in the election.

The worst victim of the supermajority requirement was the 1914 gubernatorial candidate Charles West, who sponsored four initiatives: one to reduce the number of appellate courts, a second to reduce the property tax by 29 percent, a third to tax oil and gas production, and a fourth to abolish the state senate, thereby creating a unicameral legislature. All four garnered majorities of ballots cast on each proposition, but not majorities of the total cast in the election, and therefore failed. In 1916 this unfair requirement brought down two more initiatives, to the chagrin of their Socialist sponsors. Ironically, the measures were designed to ensure the fairness of elections. One would have altered voting registration procedures; the other would have created a state election board composed of three members, one appointed by each of the state's three major political parties (the Socialists were the third-largest party at that time). In the 1920s, corruption in state government prompted an initiative to establish a procedure to convene the legislature promptly to investigate allegations of corruption; it passed by a nearly three to one margin but was thrown out by the state supreme court, which ruled that it was not the proper subject of a constitutional amendment. When the court threw out a 1926 initiative that would have established a procedure for contesting property tax levies, however, its sponsors persisted: they rewrote their initiative in conformity to the court's requirements, and voters passed it the second time in 1928 by a margin of nearly five to one. The Great Depression hit Oklahoma hard, and Oklahomans turned to the initiative process to propose economic reforms. Among these were a 1935 initiative establishing a state welfare program and appropriating $2.5 million for it (passed by a 65 percent margin); a 1936 initiative increasing the automobile tag and sales taxes to provide assistance to needy elderly and disabled persons and children (approved by a 60 percent margin); and a 1936 constitutional amendment authorizing the latter initiative statute (passed by a 62 percent margin).

In the 1940s Oklahomans passed initiatives that provided retirement pensions for teachers (1942), allowed local property tax increases to aid schools (1946), and allowed the legislature to raise additional school funds (1946).

The only initiative to gain approval in the 1950s was a 1956 reapportionment measure; despite a four to three margin in favor, it failed to get a majority of those voting in the election. In the 1960s two more initiatives failed for the same reason: a 1962 reapportionment proposal and a 1964 measure changing the property tax limits. In 1974 the state constitution was finally amended so that an initiative would win if a majority of those voting on the individual initiative approved it. However, in 2001, the state legislature placed a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would have required twice the number of signatures for initiatives pertaining to wildlife. This action was taken to stop animal protection advocates attempts to ban cockfighting in the state, however the voters defeated it.

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Acknowledgements

This state history is based on research found in David Schmidt's book, Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot Initiative Revolution and was found at the I and R Institute Oklahoma