If the Legislature continues on the road it traveled with a voter identification bill last week, Oklahoma voters may need more than one pencil when they head to the polls next year.
Besides picking candidates for a slew of offices, a pattern has developed from the Republican-controlled Legislature that could greatly expand the ballot. If key pieces of their agenda can't get past the governor, a send-it-to-a-vote-of-the-people mentality will be unleashed.
"We reserve the right to use that option," said Speaker of the House Chris Benge, R-Tulsa. "But I would hope first we would be able to work with the governor on these issues and not have to take this option."
The let-the-people-decide engine was revved up when Gov. Brad Henry vetoed a bill that would have required anyone voting in an Oklahoma election to show a proof of identification at the polls. The measure is steeped in controversy, as proponents argue this would be a way to keep integrity in the voting system. But opponents are concerned such a requirement could disenfranchise minorities and low-income residents from elections. They also contend the requirement may be unconstitutional.
The original bill made its way through the state House and Senate before landing on the governor's desk. It became Henry's first veto of the 2009 legislative session.
Within a half-hour of Henry's announced veto, another bill was sent before the House with the same voting requirements. Only this time, the bill eluded the governor's veto pen and took the item straight to the voting public to decide the matter. It now heads over to the Senate.
When asked if this was going to be the routine every time Henry vetoed a bill, Benge said it's quite possible.
"Whenever you keep running into roadblocks, you look for ways to get around those roadblocks," he said. "If they are legitimate, and this is a legitimate way, we've chosen to take that road."
The strategy of taking an issue out of the hands of elected officials and letting the public hash it out raises a question of the role of government. Deciding what to do on tough issues would seem part of the job description for a legislator.
"If we send everything that could be controversial to a vote of the people, then we don't need to be up here," said Rep. Danny Morgan, D-Prague, the House minority leader.
The voter ID bill is not the first measure to make it out of the Legislature, bypass the governor, and let the voting public chose its fate in November of 2010. Oklahomans will also be asked whether they think attorneys' fees should be capped in civil litigation cases in House Bill 1602. Legislative supporters of lawsuit reform have threatened to send more bills to a vote of the people if the governor continues to thwart their efforts.
VOTER ID PROPONENTS
But unlike the voter ID bill, the attorney fees bill was presented as a resolution for a public vote. Voter ID proponents brought the issue back up in the form of a regular bill, yet managed to avoid the governor's veto pen.
"One thing that does come into play, the voter ID bill is something we have advocated for many, many years and just run into roadblocks," Benge said. "It's been pretty much a party-line division."
Eight Democrats did vote in favor of the bill.
The Republicans' strategic use of the public vote contrasts from their arguments back in 2003 when the lottery was debated. Nearly every Republican legislator voted against letting the public decide if Oklahoma should have a lottery. It was Henry's main thrust during his first year in office, and it sharply divided the state Capitol. The measure eventually passed, both in the Legislature and in the 2004 election, and Oklahomans now can play the lottery.
GOOD VERSUS BAD POLICY
Benge voted against sending the lottery to a public vote and said he would do the same today. He explained the difference between letting the public decide on voter ID but not on the lottery comes down to good versus bad policy.
"It's a balance between casting votes that represent what your people would like to see, but you also cast votes you hope are good policy," he said. "In this case, as a representative of the people, I felt strongly this was not good policy and cast the vote accordingly based on my being their representative."
Morgan did vote to allow the lottery to go to the people, but voted against letting the public decide voter ID. For him, it comes down how much interest his district has in an issue and whether opinions are evenly divided.
"When it's that close, that contentious of an issue, then I have no problem sending it out and letting the voters decide because they have not given me clear instructions on what they want me to do as their elected official," Morgan said. "As a legislator, that to me is my job is to find out which way my constituents want me to go. If it's 50-50, like it was on the lottery, I said, 'Let you all decide that.'"
If the governor's veto pen runs out of ink this session, voters may be spending a long time in the voting booth 19 months from now. "Scott Cooper