Initiative Petitions vs Legislative Referendums

Initiative Petitions and Legislative Referendums are both terms used to describe the voting process. Citizen initiatives help people to bypass their state legislature by suggesting laws and changes to the Constitution themselves. Oklahoma is one of 24 states that has a citizen initiative process, and it allows both direct initiatives and suggested changes to the Constitution. A certain number of people must sign their names to ask for this. There are two types of initiatives: direct and indirect. In the direct process, suggestions and ideas are immediately added to the ballot. In the indirect process, the suggestion is sent to the legislature. The legislature can then agree with the new idea or suggest another. If they don’t agree, the people vote on the initiative. This link is helpful to explain the Oklahoma process and rules Although sometimes citizen initiatives are sometimes less professionally drafted, since experts don’t write them, they serve an important role in ensuring that the legislature listens to the voice of the people.

In comparison, legislatures are often required to allow people to vote on certain issues. For example, if the legislature wants to change the Constitution, people must vote on it. More examples relate to taxes and bonds. In Oklahoma, if lawmakers want to change something in the Constitution, they can write a State Question for people to vote on, or they can have an initiative petition. To pass a law, the Senate and House must agree and approve by majority vote. It does not require the Governor’s approval. Although not always the case, Legislative Referenda tend to be more agreeable than citizen initiatives, are more often approved by voters than citizen initiatives, are more common, and often receive higher voter turnout.

A number of important reforms have passed in recent years thanks to the initiative petition and legislative referendum processes. SQ 780 and 781 (2016) changed some marijuana-related offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, resulting in a large reduction in the state’s overburdened prison population, and SQ 802 (2020) expanded Medicaid coverage to over 200,000 low-income Oklahomans. But some lawmakers cite urban/rural differences in values as a reason that these processes should be limited.

There are three proposed bills that would affect initiative petitions and legislative referendums. HJR 1058 and HJR 1059, authored by Representative Newton and Senator Taylo,r would increase the percentage required to pass an initiative petition from 51% to 55%. HJR 1058 would require a 55% majority of voters to pass initiative petitions to amend the Constitution and a simple majority to remove them. HJR 1059 would require a 55% majority of voters to pass an amendment to the Constitution proposed by the Legislature and a simple majority for the removal of a provision as proposed by the Legislature. The authors claim these were written because of SQ 793, as well as SQ 788. This proposal led to many questions and concerns on the committee floor. Representative Virgin expressed that the right to work would not have passed under this legislation because it only passed with 54% and could not have met the new 55% threshold. Representative Turner discussed how the initiative petition process allows the public to take part in the process and to vote for what their communities need, which begs the question of, ‘do we think Oklahomans don’t know what they need?’ Representative Newton argued that amendments to the Constitution should require more than a 50.1% vote.

HJR 1002 authored by Representative Hardin and Senator Simpson is a proposed Constitutional Amendment to require signatures from voters of a certain percentage in very county instead of statewide for initiative and referendum petitions. Initiative petitions must therefore have the winning percentage in each county to pass, which weakens the power of the voters to pass initiative petitions by leveraging rural verses urban votes. Representative Virgin spoke out against this bill at committee hearing, arguing that work required to get signatures in each single county takes away the ability of grassroots organizations to run their campaigns. This makes a signature in one county more valuable than a signature from another which raises the issue of one person one vote.

Although initiative petitions and referendums are responsible for problematic policy developments, such as SQ 755 in 2013 that famously banned Shariah law in Oklahoma and was struck down by the courts, they are an important function in our democracy for citizens to be able to ensure that their wishes are truly heard in the legislature. Any attempt to restrict the power of citizens to make their voices heard, whether through accessing the ballot or gathering signatures, should be met with suspicion.