Politics & Policy

Civil Rights for O.K.

Signature gathering in the Sooner State.

Last November, as Republicans across the country suffered a sweeping defeat, voters in the blue state of Michigan gave conservatives at least one reason to celebrate by passing the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, a ballot measure to abolish racial preferences in public education, public employment, and public contracting. Buoyed by their success in California, Washington. and Michigan, opponents of preferences, led by the American Civil Rights Institute, are moving forward on their most ambitious project yet: a drive to pass similar ballot initiatives in five states in 2008. Of course, they face organized and entrenched opposition in all five states. But surprisingly, they face a uniquely difficult set of challenges in the red state of Oklahoma, where institutional and political forces conspire against those who would put ballot measures directly before the people.

Oklahoma’s initiative and referendum process is among the most onerous in the United States. If a citizen or group wants to put a measure on the ballot, they only have 90 days to gather over 165,000 signatures (only Massachusetts limits petitioners to a shorter time frame). In addition, only residents of Oklahoma can circulate petitions, so out-of-state groups are limited to an advisory and/or fundraising role. Other states have similar residency requirements, but Oklahoma is unique in that a recent Oklahoma court decision interpreted the law to mean that only people who intend to be “permanent” residents of the state can gather signatures. Anyone who moves to Oklahoma temporarily to help put an initiative on the ballot does so at his peril.

W. Devin Resides, an Oklahoma City lawyer who is spearheading local efforts to put the Oklahoma Civil Rights Initiative on the ballot in 2008, explains to National Review Online: “It’s so onerous because you can never ask for help from any other sister state, or any other person who’s out of state, in gathering the signatures, without subjecting yourself possibly to jail.”

With that remark, Resides is referring to Paul Jacob, the libertarian activist who was indicted in October with two colleagues for violating Oklahoma’s residency requirement. In 2005, Jacob was involved in an effort to pass a ballot initiative that would have capped the rate of growth of state spending. The initiative garnered enough signatures to be placed on the ballot, but big-government groups challenged it in court on the grounds that some signature gatherers had only recently moved to Oklahoma to aid the effort. That’s when the Oklahoma supreme court ruled that residents were not really “residents” unless they moved to Oklahoma with the intention of making the state their “permanent home.”

This ruling disqualified thousands of signatures, and Oklahomans were denied a vote on the measure. But Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson, a Democrat, decided that wasn’t enough. He moved to indict Jacob and his colleagues, and now the “Oklahoma Three” face up to ten years in prison for their efforts.

Resides says he is taking extra care to avoid Jacob’s fate. “My father always told me to measure twice and cut once,” he says. “I believe that’s what we’ve done here and that Mr. Edmondson will approve of this initiative process. I’ve used every resource at my disposal to ensure that Mr. Edmondson would be pleased with how careful we were to ensure that we did nothing to jeopardize this process.”

Still, he said, this newly narrowed residency requirement has made things extremely difficult, even though the initiative is popular in the state. “When we’re out there, the response is great — 80 or 90 percent of the people we talk to are signing this when it’s put in front of them,” he says. “But, because of the constraints, we don’t have enough bodies to get out there. So even though we’ve had some help from out of state coordinating this effort, bodies on the street are hard to come by.”

Complicating matters further are the blockers — people, often paid, who show up wherever signature gatherers are and attempt to prevent citizens from signing petitions. (This video offers a vivid illustration of the lunatic lengths to which blockers will go to intimidate potential signers.)

Ironically, there’s no residency requirement for blockers, meaning out-of-state groups who favor racial preferences can put as many bodies on the ground to block petitioners as they can recruit, in-state or out. “If we have a farmer in Oklahoma who tries to do something like this, what can he do against these national agencies that can come in, swoop down, and effectively silence him?” Resides asks. “He couldn’t have a national farmers’ cooperative come in and help him gather signatures because those wouldn’t be Oklahoma residents. He would need help, but he can’t get it,” Resides says.

Right now, Resides could use all the help he can get. The 90-day window on this petition closes December 10, and opponents of preferences in Oklahoma are still thousands of signatures short. Only a few state Republicans have had the political courage to support the measure openly, and media coverage, to the extent that it exists, is mostly hostile.

But Resides remains optimistic that Oklahomans will do the right thing. “I’ve tried to do this the old-fashioned way,” he says. “It’s a grassroots effort. Oklahomans are old-fashioned. They think the best person should get the job, regardless of what they look like. I’m proud to be an Oklahoman, and that’s why I want to put this issue before my fellow Oklahomans for a vote.”

  – Stephen Spruiell is an NRO staff reporter.

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