What To Expect In The Second Half Of The 2014 Legislative Session

As we move into the second half of the 2014 Legislative Session, we are still watching the Legislature carefully. Of all the bills we were watching over the last two years, only three remain active. So let’s take a moment to see what the state of those three bills are.

The only bill to have any kind of hearing so far this year is HB2134. This bill, when it was introduced, would have returned the signature requirement to its pre-1974 requirement of 5,000. It passed the House Rules Committee in 2013 and sat there until the last day the House could hear its own bills in 2014. At that time, it was amended to 2.5% of the last general election. The bill then passed the House on a vote of 74 to 11. It is now awaiting a Senate Rules Committee hearing. The Senate has until April 10 to hear House bills in committee and until April 24 to hear it on the floor.

The other ballot access reform bill that is still alive is SB668. This bill passed the Senate on a unanimous vote in 2013. This bill is the weaker of the two reform bills. It merely removes the Presidential elections from the signature formula. It is in the House awaiting a Rules Committee hearing. It has the same deadlines as HB2134 but on the House side.

Of these two bills, we greatly prefer that HB2134 pass. But at this point, it is difficult to say if either will get a hearing. Our greatest fear is that both chambers will not move on either bill because they have both passed one of their own already. We have reached out to both the Senate Author of HB2134 and the House author of SB668 to find out what their next moves are. Neither has responded to our requests.

The final bill on our watch list is SB76. This bill is one that we hope the House does not consider at all. It would double the filing fees to run for office. This bill will have the effect of reducing the number of people who would run for office. In Oklahoma, where far less than 50% of legislative seats make it to the November ballot, this would harm Oklahoma more than help. This bill has passed solely on partisan lines. No Democrats have voted in favor of it. It is in the House waiting a hearing by the Appropriations and Budget committee. We have reached out to the House author to find out if he has plans to push it through, but he has not responded.

So as we enter the last two months of the legislative session, we will be keeping you up to date on any movement made on these three bills.

Speaker Shannon Kept His Word; Refused To Hear Ballot Access Reform

Earlier in the session, HB2134 died in the House after the Calendar Committee refused to hear the bill and pass it to the floor. During that time, it was made known that Speaker Shannon did not want to hear ballot access reform at all. We had hoped that Speaker Shannon might have only wanted to not hear HB2134 specifically. We then put our hopes on the Senate Bill, SB668, that was not as good, but would pave the way for further real reform. Unfortunately, SB668, despite passing the Senate and the House Judiciary Committee, failed to be heard by the House Calendar Committee. These actions show that Speaker Shannon refused to hear any ballot access reform bills.

It is unfortunate that such needed reform was blocked by a single person in the State Legislature. As I have pointed out many times, all the evidence points to the need for reform. Oklahoma has been the only state in the United States to deny its voters more than two choices for President in the last three elections. The election results for 2012 show that the confusion and spoiler arguments used to fight reform hold no weight. Ballot Access News showed that at least 20,000 voters were denied the opportunity to vote for Gary Johnson. With all that evidence showing the real harm of our current laws toward voters, and the lack of harm to the duopoly parties, supporting ballot access reform, why wasn’t it a priority?

With the death of SB668, Oklahoma voters are no closer to being able to choose the party and candidates of their choice. While the bills are dead for this year, they can be revived next year. However, even if one of them were to pass and signed into law, it would be too late for new parties to form before the Governor elections. But that should not stop us. Getting real reform, as found in HB2134, passed in 2014 will open the door wide for the 2016 election. That would be a valuable change for Oklahoma voters.

So what should we do? We need to raise further awareness of the issue. We need more letters to the editors, more letters and calls to State Legislators. Write your Representative and Senator. Write the Governor. Demand that they bring ballot access reform to Oklahoma voters. More importantly, tell your friends and family about the need for reform. We will continue to bring you the latest news and updates on this important topic.

After HB2134’s Death, What’s Left For Oklahoma’s Reform Efforts?

Last week, the House let HB2134 die for the year. Had it passed HB2134, the law governing the signature requirement to form a new party would have gone from a 5% of the last general election requirement to a flat 5,000 signature requirement. This would have returned Oklahoma law to how it was prior to 1974. Yet, due to some unwillingness from Speaker Shannon, HB2134 never got a floor vote despite passing the Rules Committee unanimously.

So what is left for Oklahoma voters? There are still two bills alive and kicking that we are keeping our eyes on. The first is a similar bill to HB2134. SB668 passed the Senate unanimously and is now waiting for action from the House. Under SB668’s language, the signature requirements to form a new party would no longer take into consideration the Presidential elections, only the Governor elections. What this would do is bring about consistency between elections, but would not bring about much relief to new parties.

As you look back through recent elections, you will find that in Presidential election years, years in which parties would form based on the last Governor election, new parties were not able to form and gain access to the Presidential ballot. This language is the primary reason why Oklahoma has been the only state in the nation to give its voters only two choices for President for three elections in a row.

Despite these complaints, there is value in allowing SB668 to go forward as currently written. First, recent Legislative Sessions have shown that the Senate is unwilling to pass anything that goes lower than 5%. This stance has prevented a number of bills from going to the Governor to be signed into law. Next, we have Speaker Shannon’s stance that ballot access reform is not a priority. We are not sure if the specific reform found in HB2134 was not a priority or just ballot access reform in general. Letting SB668 go to the House Floor for a vote would show that reform itself is a priority but Speaker Shannon doesn’t support a genuinely lower requirement to form a new party. Finally, passing SB668 as is would open the door to future reform efforts as the Legislature would have a changed mindset toward reform efforts. This psychological opposition to reform would be weakened after the passage of SB668 and any future complaints and opposition would not be as strong.

SB668 has not yet been assigned to a House committee for review. When it does, it will most likely go to the Rules Committee which has shown its support already for reform. After that, it will need to pass the Calendar Committee before getting a floor vote. Hopefully, we will see it pass out of both without issue. Representative Watson, the House sponsor of the bill, is on the Rules Committee so he will most likely be advocating for its passage soon.

The other bill that we are concerned about is SB76. SB76 would double the filing fees for all elected offices in Oklahoma. This fee, as far as we can tell, is not needed in the state. An increased fee to run for office will result in nothing but a reduction in people running for office. In the last election, less than 50% of all Oklahoma legislative seats had a November election. All other seats were either unopposed or settled in a primary election. With so few people running for office, why would anyone support further reduction?

SB76 has already been assigned to a committee for a hearing. It has been assigned to the House Appropriations and Budget committee but will most likely be assigned to one of the subcommittees, either the General Government or the Revenue and Taxation subcommittee. Representative Russ, the House Sponsor of the bill, is on the General Government Subcommittee so it is likely to go there, however, the bill does increase fees so that falls under the purview of the Revenue and Taxation committee. We will likely find more information soon.

That is where we stand at this point in the Legislative Session. What we need from you at this point is to contact your Representatives and ask them to support the passage of SB668 and to oppose SB76.

Senate Ballot Access Reform Bill Passes Without A Title

On February 27, the Senate heard and passed SB668, ballot access reform, on a vote of 42-0. This bill now goes on to the House for consideration. However, the bill was not amended to change the 5% language it current holds. This means that the inconsistency between it and the House version, HB2134, remains. Senator Rob Johnson did acknowledge that disparity and as such requested that the title be stricken before the vote. Unfortunately, that will not help the effort to bring reform to the state.

Richard Prawdzienski of the Oklahoma Libertarian Party commented.

Striking the title devalues the vote of 42-0.  Without a title, the bill has to come back to the Senate to have the title placed back on if bill gets a pass vote in the House.  If more language is added, it means the bill must be heard in a conference. Many bills in conference die a quiet death.

Having ballot access reform assigned to a conference is one of the fears of many supporters of reform. That had been the fate of all recent attempts that passed the House and Senate. In each of those previous attempts, the Senate part of the conference committee refused to hear the bills and they died.

At this point, we are waiting to hear about progress on HB2134. It has yet to be placed on the agenda for the House. Please contact your Representative and ask them to support HB2134 in its current form.

Letter To The Editor Published In Tulsa World

Today, the Tulsa World published my Letter to the Editor. This letter was pretty much word for word my letter to NewsOK, but the World made several edits. Nothing that changed the meaning in any way, just the flow. It is great to see that the World finally picked it up. This letter has sparked a pretty great conversation in the comments that had yet to exist on the Tulsa World website.

I will express one aside here. The Tulsa World is a supporter of what are called “paywalls” in which non-subscribing readers are blocked from reading more than 10 or so articles a month. This means that it is likely that some of you may not be able to read the letter or the comments. This is one reason why I like to post the letter contents in full. Continue reading

SB668 Passes Senate Rules Committee With Amendments

Wednesday, February 13th, the Senate Rules Committee voted 19-0 to pass SB668, Ballot Access Reform, with an amendment which Senator Johnson introduced in the meeting. The amendment grants the Election Board greater authority to answer questions and resolve disputes(pdf) over who is authorized to represent a new party in the state. It reads as follows:

In the event a question or dispute arises as to which person or persons have the authority to act on behalf of a recognized political party, the Secretary of the State Election Board shall have the authority to make such determination based on relevant state statutes, official documents filed with the Secretary of the State Election Board, the party’s by-laws, and, if possible, consultation with the party’s national chair or executive committee.

This amendment seems to be targeted at situations such as this past Presidential Election in which the state chapter of the Americans Elect Party tried to nominate the Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson. That nomination eventually went to the State Supreme Court which ruled that the state party did not have authorization to nominate a Presidential Candidate because the national party refused to hold a convention. This amendment would seem to allow the Election Board the power to resolve these disputes without going to court.

Unfortunately, this is the only amendment and one that is not really necessary. It would have been preferable to have the bill amended to require a set 5,000 signatures. I have not heard back from Senator Johnson or any other members of the Rules Committee on that matter.

Example Letter Sent Regarding SB 668 Ballot Access Reform

With SB 668 being sent to the Senate Rules Committee for review, I feel that it is important to contact those members to express the need to amend the bill to reflect the 5,000 signature requirement in the House Bill. As such, I am providing you with the letter that I sent to Senator Rob Johnson, the author of SB 668. I also sent a similarly worded letter to the other members of the Senate Rules Committee.

So if you are having trouble writing a letter or need some talking points when making phone calls, feel free to use this letter as a launching point.

Dear Senator Johnson,

My name is Zachary Knight. I am the Chief Editor of OKVoterChoice.org, the online home of Oklahomans for Ballot Access Reform. I am writing to you today regarding the introduction of SB668 to the 2013 Legislative Session. I am grateful to see that you have taken up this important reform for Oklahoma’s political climate. However, I must express some disappointment in the current wording of the bill.

According to the bill as introduced, SB668 would not bring much relief to new parties attempting to form in Oklahoma. SB668 simply removes the Presidential elections from the equation. While this language would bring some stability to the petition requirements, it will do little to ease the burden of fledgling parties in the state.

Additionally, it is this language that has led reform bills in previous sessions to die in committee as the Senate refused to amend the bills to reflect a flat signature requirement as proposed in similar House bills. For four years, the Senate has maintained that the requirement should be kept at 5% of the Gubernatorial elections and for four years, this demand has led to Oklahoma voters continuing to be denied voter choice.

Representative Hickman has introduced HB2134 which would reduce the signature requirement to a flat 5,000 signatures. I would implore you to amend your bill, SB668, to reflect that same requirement. Oklahoma voters deserve to have more choices on the ballot.

I fear that without this reform, Oklahoma politics and elections will continue to stagnate as fewer and fewer people take part in the election process. We have seen this over the last 3 Presidential elections. Each election has seen significantly lower voter turnout than the previous election. How much longer will the Oklahoma Senate sit idly by while Oklahoma voters lose faith in the Democratic process?

Once again, I ask that you amend SB668 to reflect the 5,000 signature requirement in the House Bill.

Thank you for your time. I look forward to watching the progress of your bill.

E. Zachary Knight

Chief Editor


Ballot Access Reform Introduced In Oklahoma

Once again, Ballot Access Reform bills have been introduced in the House and Senate. Unfortunately, we are already off to a rocky start. While bills have been introduced in both houses of the State Legislature, each bill carries its own conflicting language.

First up, we have SB668, introduced by Senator Rob Johnson. This bill became available first and includes language that really offers no reprieve to new political parties. It modifies the current requirement of 5% of the last general election, which includes both the Presidential and Gubernatorial, to 5% of the last Gubernatorial election.

This is better in only the fact that no political parties have met the current requirement following Presidential election years. All new parties that have formed since the 1974 change have only been able to form in years following Gubernatorial elections. However, only 3 such parties have formed since the 80s. Considering the most recent example, the Americans Elect Party, was only able to form with considerable outside financial backing, we would continue to see a lack of political options in years to come.

Fortunately, the House version, HB2134 introduced by Representative Jeffrey Hickman, includes language consistent with the requirements prior to 1974. Under HB2134, a new party would be able to form after gathering only 5,000 signatures. This is a much more reasonable and fair requirement than the current 5% requirement.

However, due to the conflicting nature of these two bills, it will be difficult for true reform to pass this year without a fight. In the last Legislative Session, similar bills were filed. While both passed their respective houses, although the House version did not pass without an amendment that raised the requirement to 25,000 signatures, because of the conflicting language, the bills went to a Conference Committee which sat on them till the close of the session. This killed the chances of reform in both 2011 and 2012.

Another unfortunate oversight by those filing these bills is the lack of other needed reforms. Particularly in the area of retaining status. Oklahoma’s current requirement for retaining status is to win 10% of the total votes in the General Election. If a party does not field a candidate or does not win the 10% mark, they are removed from party status and must re-qualify. A better solution would be to make party status good for 4 years rather than the current 2 and to lower the General Election vote requirement to 1-5%.

Finally, neither of these bills tackle the statute language that immunizes the Democratic and Republican parties from these requirements. Under current law, if the Democratic or Republican parties fail to win 10% of the general Election vote, they will still retain official party recognition.

While these bills are not perfect, it is imperative that we contact our House and Senate representatives and encourage them to vote for these reforms. It is also important that we emphasize to our Senators, and specifically the Senate Rules Committee to amend the legislation to reflect the 5,000 signature requirement. We should also emphasize to the House Rules Committee to preserve the current language.