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.

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 Votes To Greatly Increase Candidate Filing Fees

On March 5, 2013, the Oklahoma Senate voted to pass SB76. This bill would greatly increase the filing fees in order to run for office in Oklahoma. This bill is not needed in Oklahoma as we already suffer from too few people running for office. This bill, if passed in the House and signed by the Governor, would simply make that problem worse.

The good news is that there is a lot of bipartisan opposition to the bill. The vote for the bill was 27-18. No Democratic Senators voted for the bill and the opposition was a good mix of Democratic and Republican Senators. This shows that many people in the State Legislature understand that this bill is problematic.

The bill now moves to the House. As we have said, it is vital that this bill be voted down in the House. We do not need this fee increase in Oklahoma. People should be free to run for office and increasing the fees associated with it would reduce that freedom. Please contact your Representative and ask them to vote against this arbitrary fee increase.

Senate Rules Committee Passes SB76 On Strict Party Line Vote

SB76 is a Senate Bill that would greatly increase the fees associated with filing for candidacy for office. The fee increases range from double to triple (an original version of the bill incorrectly listed the current filing fees, thus leading the misconception that some fees were tripled) the current fees. It what can only be seen as Republican support for fewer people running for office, the Senate Rules Committee passed the bill (PDF) on a strict party line vote. The 14 Republican members of the committee voted to pass the bill while the 5 Democratic members voted against it. This bill now goes on to the Senate floor for a vote.

Please contact your Senator and ask them to vote against this bill. This bill will severely reduce the number of people running for office. With roughly 50% of House and Senate seats going unopposed each election, that is not something that we need. If you are looking for an example of a letter you could send, please see the letter I wrote to Senator Fields.

Example Letter Sent Regarding SB76 Increased Fees To File For Office

With SB 76 being sent to the Senate Rules Committee for review, I feel that it is important to contact those members to express how damaging this bill will be to Oklahoma Elections. As such, I am providing you with the letter that I sent to Senator Fields, the author of SB 76. 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 Fields,

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 SB76 to the 2013 Legislative Session. I write to you because I am at a loss for the justification behind an increase in the filing fees to run for office.

Before I get into my investigation into the the number of candidates filing, I would like to express some general thoughts on the economics of such fees. This filing fee, for all intents and purposes, is very much a tax on participating in the political process. As such, when one increases a tax, it has the direct and obvious result of reducing demand for that which is taxed. With that in mind, it would seem that increasing the filing fee needed to run for office would result in fewer people running for office.

Following on to that, I can see no justification for reducing the number of people running for office. If anything, Oklahoma certainly needs the opposite. By looking at the number of people running in previous elections, we can see a steady downward trend in the number of elections.

From 2004 to 2012, the number of November elections for State House seats has dropped from 66 seats to 34, respectfully. On the State Senate side over the same time period, we have seen a drop from 19 to 12, with two elections in that time frame coming in at 11 and 10 seats. In all of those elections, the highest number of candidates on any one ballot was three.

If we increase the filing fees, the result will be to exacerbate those trends.

Looking statewide, I can find no seats that have had more than 3 candidates in recent years. For federal elections, the most I have seen is 4 candidates. Yet, in none of those elections were voters unable to choose a clear winner.

Oklahomans for Ballot Access Reform supports efforts to make participation in elections more inclusive. With that mission in mind, we cannot support SB76 and will actively campaign to defeat this bill. We ask you to voluntarily withdraw your bill and work with your legislative colleagues to improve Oklahoma elections to make them more inclusive.

Thank you for your time.

E. Zachary Knight
Chief Editor

Election Reform and “Reform” Bills Already Hitting The Senate

While we are still waiting on word of the true reform bill we are looking for, the Senate is busy introducing other bits of reform and some “reform”. Why the quotes? Well, some things that are called reform are far from it.

There are three bills introduced so far that will change elections in some fashion. Two of them are pretty good changes and the third is a move that would result in fewer people running for office. Fewer people engaged in the election process is never a good thing.

The first bill, SB 80, allows for county election boards to request an earlier starting time to begin counting absentee ballots. This means that if a county receives a large number of absentee ballots, it can request an earlier time before the election to begin counting them. This would likely result in a reduced burden in the week following the election and hopefully result in fewer miscounts.

The second bill, SB 99, changes how County Commissioner races are handled. Under this legislation, County Commissioners will no longer file or run under party labels. These non-partisan elections will hopefully result in less partisan rhetoric during elections and a greater emphasis on the actual candidates rather than their political leanings.

Under this new system, the way elections will be handled is as follows. If only one person files, that person automatically wins the seat, as currently happens in other races. If two people file, those two candidates go to a November election. If three or more people file, a non-partisan primary election is held. If the Primary election results in a single candidate winning 50% or more of the vote, that person wins the election. If no candidate wins 50% or more, then the top two candidates go on to the November election.

The final bill is a bit of a doozy and is the one that earns the quotes on reform. SB 76 doubles to triples (an original version of the bill, incorrectly listed the current fees thus making some seem to have tripled.) the fees required to file for various races for the state and US. The increases for the various races are as follows:

  • Governor goes from $1000 $1500 to $3000
  • US Senate goes from $750 $1000 to $2000
  • US Representative goes from $500 $750 to $1500
  • Lieutenant Governor, Corporation Commission, Attorney General, State Auditor and Inspector, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, State Treasurer, Commissioner of Insurance and Commissioner of Labor are all at $1000
  • All other state elections, such as State House and Senate, go from $200 to $400

I am seriously straining to find a real need for these changes. It is not as if Oklahoma suffers from a glut of candidates filing each year. If one is too look over the last decade or so of races, you will find that few races in November have more than three candidates on the ballot. If you look at Primary elections, the most I was able to find on a single primary race was eight. However, even in those races, it was often fairly easy for voters to narrow their choices.

Whatever the supposed reason for this bill, and we will be contacting Senator Fields about his reasoning, the most likely result will be fewer people running for office. In a state that teeters on fewer than 50% of races making it past the primaries to the November elections, that would be a very bad thing. It could further stagnate citizen participation in the election process. The key reason is that these increased fees will mean that candidates without established financial backers will be unable to pay the filing fees.

For an example of this, I ran for State House in 2010. The filing fee was $200 and I spent an additional $100 of my own money during the campaign. Had the filing fee been the $400 proposed, I would not have been able to afford the filing fee and would not have been able to run. While some incumbents might like that idea, it will result in a further decay of public trust in government.

We at Oklahomans For Ballot Access Reform encourage all to contact your State Senators and Representatives and ask them to oppose this bill. This is not the type of reform the State of Oklahoma needs. We need reform that will result in a more inclusive and better represented government and election process.