Citizens of Oklahoma may use the initiative and referendum to write or change laws in the state. The initiative and referendum are two instruments of direct democracy. Through the initiative, voters can write statutes and constitutional amendments that appear on the ballot when enough signatures have been collected on petitions. Voters in twenty-three other states also may use the initiative process to enact legislation or amend the state constitution. Voters may use the referendum to place laws previously approved by legislative bodies on the ballot. Signatures must be collected on petitions in order for the referendum to be placed on the ballot. The third instrument of direct democracy, the recall, allows voters the opportunity to remove an elected official from office. Although residents of several cities and towns may recall their local elected officials, no provisions allow for a recall of state elected officials in Oklahoma
Oklahoma was the first state to include initiative and referendum provisions in its original constitution when it became a state in 1907. As the state entered the Union during the Progressive Era, it is not surprising that the Oklahoma Constitution includes direct democracy. The Progressives saw direct democracy as an obstacle to special-interest-group control of government.
The referendum and initiative processes are described in Article V of the Oklahoma Constitution, juxtaposed with the description of the structure and function of the legislative branch. To qualify a statutory initiative for the ballot, campaign organizers must collect a number of signatures equal to 8 percent of the legal voters. An initiative proposing a constitutional amendment requires signatures from 15 percent of the legal voters, while a referendum requires signatures from 5 percent. According to Article V, the number of legal voters is the total number of votes cast at the last general election for the state office receiving the highest number of votes. Because Oklahoma's signature requirements are moderate compared to other states, there have been an average of nine ballot measures per election year. State questions, as the ballot measures are called, are worded so that a “yes” vote changes the status quo.
Since statehood, Oklahomans have voted on over four hundred state questions. About three-quarters of the questions have been legislative referenda placed before the voters by the state legislature. Fewer than twenty citizen referenda have been placed on the ballot, and only four have won. The remaining state questions were statutory initiatives or initiatives proposing constitutional amendments. State questions have asked Oklahoma voters to decide how to tax and regulate the production of oleomargarine and whether winemakers may use out-of-state grapes. Through the initiative process in 1990 Oklahoma voters approved a term limits amendment. In 1991 voters rejected a referendum on House Bill 1017, a package of education reforms and tax increases to raise revenue for those reforms passed by the legislature in 1990. Oklahoma voters approved a number of anti-tax measures in the 1990s. Direct democracy through the initiative and referendum have become a significant feature of Oklahoma politics.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Danney Goble, Progressive Oklahoma: The Making of a New Kind of State (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980). David R. Morgan, Robert E. England, and George G. Humphreys, eds., Oklahoma Politics and Policies: Governing the Sooner State (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991). John David Rausch, Jr., “Anti-Representative Direct Democracy: The Politics of Legislative Constraint,” Comparative State Politics 15 (April 1994).
John David Rausch
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