Democracy reform efforts make way for new political parties 

Danielle Ganaway signs the 1-Center Sales Tax petition, Wednesday, March 9, 2016. - GARETT FISBECK
  • Garett Fisbeck
  • Danielle Ganaway signs the 1-Center Sales Tax petition, Wednesday, March 9, 2016.

To put Oklahoma’s vote test for party retention into perspective, Edmond resident E. Zachary Knight often describes a hurdles race.

“Other people have 2- to 3-foot hurdles to jump, but you get a 10-foot-tall hurdle,” said Knight, a member of the Libertarian Party who is active in Oklahomans for Ballot Access Reform (OBAR). “You have to jump that to stay in the race. That’s what it’s like.”

The state’s political system, traditionally represented by Democrats and Republicans alone, has been difficult for independent parties to navigate. For decades, independent groups like the Constitution, Green and Libertarian parties have faced significant barriers in achieving ballot access and remaining on the ballot once there.

However, during the last two legislative sessions, Oklahoma lawmakers passed measures reforming the state’s stringent ballot access laws.

This month, Gov. Mary Fallin approved Senate Bill 896, which significantly reduces the requirement for political parties to remain on the ballot. According to current law, a political party must receive at least 10 percent of a statewide general election vote in order to remain on the following election ballot. With Fallin’s signature on SB 896, that percentage drops to 2.5 percent as of Nov. 1, putting Oklahoma’s vote test law in line with those of neighboring states.

In Arkansas, parties need 3 percent of the popular vote of the highest-ranking officer on the ballot in order to win ballot retention in a following election. Missouri law calls for 2 percent of the popular vote for any statewide office, and Kansas holds a 1 percent requirement.

OBAR, a coalition of representatives from Green and Libertarian parties, advocated for changing the state’s vote test. The reform measure picked up speed after a 2015 law passed and lowered the required number of signatures needed to form a new political party. New parties must collect registered voter signatures equal to 3 percent of the total number of votes cast in the state’s last gubernatorial or presidential election, down from 5 percent.

“Senate Bill 896 would have never been introduced without House Bill 2181 passing last year,” said Knight, who has been active in OBAR since 2007.

Knight is a Libertarian candidate for Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District.

“It opened up the Legislature to actually improve things,” Knight said. “Hopefully we can see more reforms on ballot access get introduced and passed.”

OBAR continues to advocate for dropping the vote test requirement to 1 percent. Additionally, it believes a political party should be required to collect only 5,000 registered voter signatures to form a political party, which was Oklahoma’s requirement prior to 1974.

Under the new law, Oklahoma Libertarian Party met the 3 percent signature requirement to become a recognized political party in March. The June primary election and the November general election mark the first time since 2000 that Libertarian candidates will be on the Oklahoma ballot.

Oklahoma Libertarian Party members are optimistic the party’s presidential candidate can retain 2.5 percent of the presidential vote, Knight said.

Libertarian presidential candidates are Austin Petersen and former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson. Following news of presidential candidate Donald Trump becoming the presumptive GOP nominee, the Libertarian Party has become a popular Google search subject and Oklahoma voters might be inclined to vote for a Libertarian for president, Knight remarked.

Petition reform

Oklahomans For Health is working to improve the democratic process by proposing reforms to the state’s initiative and referendum petition process.

On Saturday, the grassroots group’s volunteers launch a petition and signature drive to get a ballot question on medical marijuana legalization before voters in the November election.

Additionally, registered voters can sign a second petition to change what some believe are overly restrictive initiative petition guidelines.

“When you’ve been involved in the process, you identify the flaws very quickly,” said Frank Grove, a founding board member of Oklahomans For Health. “For instance, every other state either has a smaller amount of signatures to collect or a much longer time frame to collect signatures.”

In 2014, Oklahomans For Health collected more than 75,000 valid signatures in a 90-day period for bringing a ballot question to amend the state’s constitution to allow medical marijuana. The group collected as many as 30,000 additional voter signatures, but those didn’t qualify because the wrong size paper was used for collections and some signatures didn’t meet state law guidelines. The group fell short of the 155,000-signature requirement.

Grove and others began to look at other state movement efforts to bring medical marijuana proposals before voters. For example, in the past year, voters in North Dakota signed a petition for medical marijuana, but the number of signatures needed was 13,453 and circulators floated petitions over a nine-month period.

Similarly, state laws in Alaska and Montana call for one year to circulate initiative petitions.

Under State Question 787, Oklahomans For Health calls for changing Oklahoma’s current petition process to allow one year to obtain signatures on initiatives.

Circulators may collect signatures on letter paper as well as legal paper, which is currently the only accepted size under state law.

The initiative petition requires three-quarters majority approval from both houses to repeal or amend measures passed by Oklahoma voters.

Proposed as a statutory change, the movement needs exactly 65,987 valid signatures in 90 days to put it on the ballot for a public vote in November.  Learn more about Oklahomans For Health and find signature gathering locations at oklahomansforhealth.com.

The success of signature gathering efforts is based on money, explained Grove, who asserts that with a longer time frame to collect signatures and changing paper requirements, more grassroots groups and people would become involved in influencing Oklahoma’s laws.

Print Headline: Rising opportunity, Democracy reform efforts make way for new political parties and Oklahomans to influence state laws.

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