Undertake an Initiative Campaign
Constitutional and Statutory Provisions
Oklahoma's earliest advocate of initiative and
referendum was Theodore L. Sturgis of Perry, who founded the territory's Direct
Legislation League in 1899, eight years prior to statehood. The I&R movement
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. In early 1907 the convention voted 80 to
5 to include I&R in the constitution. Oklahoma's I&R provision, however,
contained a quirk that was to cause initiative proponents endless headaches: it
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.
The state's first successful initiative, which was
on the ballot in a June 11, 1910 special election, proposed two questions in
one: (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, but the state
supreme court overruled their decision owing to the ballot's deviation from the
single-question, "yes or no" norm. Nevertheless, Oklahoma City ultimately became
the permanent state capital.
In the August 1910 primary, Oklahomans passed 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 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.
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.
David Schmidt, Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot Initiative Revolution
(Temple University Press, 1989).