Tahlequah Daily Press

Features

August 19, 2010

State questions may confuse voters

The second in a two-part series explains some of the issues that voters may not understand as well.

TAHLEQUAH — While most Oklahomans probably will go to the polls in November concerned about the outcome of the governor’s race, or a local contest of interest, they will face many other choices.

Those that have provoked the least interest are usually not a battle between parties or personalities, but a ballot full of legal-sounding rhetoric that’s likely to confuse the average voter. For many, it’s the first time they’ve read, let alone considered, the state questions on the ballot.

So far, the one gaining the most attention is SQ 744, which would require Oklahoma to spend the same amount for common education as the average spent by states in this region. State Sen. Jim Wilson, D-Tahlequah, and State Rep. Mike Brown, D-Tahlequah, explained their views on this question in Wednesday’s edition of the Press.

But the local lawmakers also commented on several other questions, some likely to draw turnout among those who feel strongly about U.S. residents being required to speak and understand English, or those who fear Muslim influence is insinuating itself into this culture.

“If they can craft an election that will typically bring people to the polls that would vote for their party, they craft emotional issues,” Wilson said of some of the lesser-known state questions. “I am convinced that legislators are more concerned about the next election than they are about good policy.”

For the record, Wilson is serving his final term in the Senate under the term limits act. He unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Rep. Dan Boren, D-Okla., in this year’s primary, and has two more years remaining in his Senate term.

Earlier this month, Missourians passed a measure forbidding state residents from being penalized for refusing to purchase health insurance, as this year’s federal health care reform legislation mandated to take effect in 2014. On Nov. 2, Oklahomans face a similar ballot measure, SQ 745, which would prohibit making a person participate in a health care system.

The Missouri question passed by a 3-to-1 margin, but only 12 percent of its voters went to the polls. The Missouri election consisted largely of Republican primaries, and political analysts in that state believe many Democrats simply chose to stay home. But whatever the mandate, the results of that vote will be challenged in court, as is likely for the results of the Oklahoma question, should it be approved.

“It’s probably going to pass, but it’s probably a moot issue,” Wilson said. “We can withdraw from the [national] health care system right now, according to the law, but we have to have our own plan that meets or exceeds federal standards.”

Oklahoma has not developed such a comprehensive plan, and Wilson doubts that it would. He believes Oklahomans have been seriously misled by the propaganda surrounding the health care debate and do not know what the federal act actually contains.

“They haven’t been asked if they want to save money or they want to improve their health care,” Wilson said.

Brown also said he believes SQ 745 is a vain effort by opponents of the national legislation.

“That will probably pass, but it will be tried constitutionally,” he said. “Oklahoma will probably be held to the health care bill.”

He said according to the U.S. Constitution, companies involved in interstate commerce will have to follow the federal law.

The lawmakers agreed a constitutional battle over the state question would merely expend state funds that could be better used elsewhere — including providing health care.

SQ 751 would make English the official state language. All official state actions would have to be published in English, although an exception would be allowed for Native American languages.

“That will probably pass,” Brown said.

He noted that, for all practical purposes, English is already the official state language, with virtually all transactions being conducted in English. This will just put that requirement into the constitution.

But Brown doesn’t see any problems resulting from the current situation, except for those who are annoyed by automated telephone systems telling them to “press one for English, oprima dos para espanol.”

“I hope people are educated enough to realize English is our official language,” he said. “Oklahoma’s law books are probably the largest in the nation, and we continually load them up with Christmas tree ornaments in elections.”

Wilson predicts the question will pass because many Americans are livid about an “English only” policy.

While proponents say it would prevent the state from having to publish its literature in multiple languages, Wilson contends it would save the state only $1,200 — the amount the Department of Public Safety pays to put out a limited number of Spanish editions of the driver’s manual.

He said the question cannot stop federal mandates such as requirements for DHS to use Spanish as needed, or hospitals from providing translators for patients. It also won’t affect private businesses and how they conduct their activities with people speaking other languages — including the often-criticized “press one for English” phone message.

Another question that has drawn comment is SQ 755, which would make Oklahoma courts rely on federal and state law when rendering decisions. It would especially forbid Sharia law based on the Koran or the teachings of Muhammad.

“Do we have any judges in Oklahoma who have tried this?” Brown said. “This is a preemptive law. I think U.S. and Oklahoma law should trump Sharia law, if that’s the case. We’ve never had this problem.”

He said Oklahoma judges know they are serving on the bench in Oklahoma and the United States, and refer to the appropriate Oklahoma and federal law books when making their rulings.

Brown labeled the question “political fodder,” and Wilson agreed, calling it “borrowing trouble.”

“I just can’t believe that,” Wilson said. “It doesn’t happen, and it’s not going to happen.”

Wilson said he does support SQ 757, which would increase the amount of surplus funding Oklahoma could put into its constitutional reserve fund (the so-called rainy day fund) from 10 percent to 15 percent of the budget.

“We discovered that 10 percent wasn’t enough savings. It’s a good thing,” he said, citing the state’s financial woes in the past few years.

SQ 746 would require voters to show an identification when going to the polls. Proponents say the question is designed to eliminate voter fraud, something Brown and Wilson say isn’t a problem in Oklahoma. However, both think the measure could discourage some people from voting by raising one more barrier to doing one’s civic duty.

Brown said he wouldn’t be opposed to the measure, as long as it requires just the same voter ID card issued by the county election boards when a person registers to vote. If it was a photo ID with a cost, that’s a different issue.

“If you have to pay for the voter ID card, that is a poll tax, and probably would be challenged in court,” he said.

Wilson said the measure might deter specific groups of voters — the elderly, the disabled, the impoverished and minorities.

“I think we ought to kill it,” he said. “What it’s going to do is stop lots of well-intentioned people from voting.”

Other state questions on the ballot include:

• SQ 747, which sets term limits for state officials of eight years, except for corporation commissioners, who would be limited to 12 years. There already are limits for the governor and legislators. Wilson said he opposes all term limits, because the voters can eliminate any elected official to one term should they choose to do so.

• SQ 748, which changes the makeup of the Apportionment Commission from three to seven members and determines who should decide how state districts should be divided each 10 years after the census.

• SQ 750, which amends the signature requirement for initiative petitions and referendums.

• SQ 752, which adds two at-large members to the Judicial Nominating Commission.

• SQ 753, which requires Senate approval of Workers Compensation Court judges.

• SQ 754, which mandates that the Oklahoma Legislature cannot be required to make its appropriations be based on “predetermined constitutional formulas,” or what any other state or entity spends on a particular function.

To read the full texts of the state questions, visit the Oklahoma Election Board’s website at ok.gov/elections.

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