One of our most cherished rights is to petition our government. If there’s a problem, we want our representatives to know so they can fix it. Imagine, however, if a top law enforcement official denied this right to citizens. Imagine he arrested them, threatening them with fines and imprisonment. Imagine it’s being driven by partisan politics. “Not in my America!”, you say? Let me introduce you to Paul Jacob and the Oklahoma 3.
Oklahoma is fortunate. If Oklahomans want an issue on the ballot, they can gather signatures and put it to a statewide vote. It’s called a ballot initiative and it’s popular with citizens. Gathering signatures is hard work so it doesn’t happen all the time. When it does, it’s usually to limit government somehow so it’s unpopular with legislators. To stop it, legislators try to make it very difficult. In Oklahoma in 2006, citizens wanted to vote on capping government spending increases over a certain amount and didn’t want government taking their homes and businesses through eminent domain and giving them to someone else who would pay the state more in taxes. To do that, they needed to gather almost 225,000 valid signatures in just 90 days to put the measures on the ballot.
Because it’s hard to get that many signatures that fast, it’s also common to use companies which specialize in circulating petitions. It happened all the time in Oklahoma. It’s further common for those circulating petitions to be from out of state. Legislatures, who usually oppose ballot initiatives, try to stop signature gathering with residency requirements. They legislate that to gather signatures in a state, you must also live there. Those laws have been challenged around the country and and defeated on First Amendment grounds. But not in Oklahoma because it has immediate residency laws. You can immediately come to Oklahoma, declare yourself a resident , and petition. The Oklahoma 3 knew about issues with residency laws and specifically asked Oklahoma about theirs. They were assured there was no problem with petitioners moving from other states to help out.
Oklahoma’s 20O6 initiatives faced some tough fights. The worst may have been a union organizer from Oregon bringing in squads of paid blockers to harass petitioners. Blockers lied about petitioner activity to bar them from property where they were collecting signatures. They spilled coffee and Cokes on completed petitions to destroy them. They verbally and physically intimidated petitioners and signers alike to stop the work. Despite this heavy opposition, the petitioners prevailed. They gathered almost 300,000 signatures. 80,000 more than were needed to get the issues on the ballot!
Unfazed by defeat, initiative opponents immediately started another fight. They challenged the petitions. They did not argue the signatures were invalid as that meant fighting signatures one by one. Instead, they challenged the residency status of signature gatherers. Despite ample precedent, it was deemed illegal to be in Oklahoma from somewhere else to collect signatures. The challengers won and tens of thousands of legal signatures were thrown out. Enough to prevent the measure from being on the ballot. It gets worse.
To intimidate future initiative efforts, the Attorney General of Oklahoma himself, Drew Edmondson, personally issued felony indictments for three people – the Oklahoma 3. They are Paul Jacob, an initiative consultant; Susan Johnson, owner of the petition company; and, Rick Carpenter, the Oklahoma resident heading up the initiative. The basis of the indictment? The Oklahoma 3 should have known their petitioners were illegal even though the state said they were OK. Using them constituted attempted fraud!
Not a single allegedly “lawbreaking” petitioner was charged with any crime. Only the Oklahoma 3 were formally indicted and charged. The trio was shackled together like murderers and paraded before the press. Improperly circulating a petition is a misdemeanor. The Oklahoma 3’s felony carries a $25,000 fine and 10 years in prison. The residency law at the heart of the case? It’s currently under challenge in the US Supreme Court and likely to lose. But the Oklahoma 3 remain under indictment, are incurring expensive legal fees and might still be convicted for petitioning the government for relief from burdensome government policies. The very thing our country was founded upon is illegal in the opinion of Oklahoma’s Attorney General Drew Edmondson.
There’s more. A lot more. The union organizer from Oregon isn’t charged with anything. The out of state paid blockers were not illegal. You can legally come to Oklahoma to prevent Oklahomans from petitioning their government. But you can’t do so to help Oklahomans. In that case, Drew Edmondson says it’s illegal to be from somewhere else! The implications for residency as Drew Edmondson sees it are frightening. In order to participate in Oklahoma’s political process, Drew says you can’t just come for a little while. He says you have to declare yourself a permanent resident of Oklahoma. But he won’t say what that means.
So students who come from out of state may be barred from political activity despite spending years in the state. Workers transferred to Oklahoma may not be able to vote there. Talk about disenfranchising voters. The same goes for members of the military. None of these are permanent residents. So Drew says being political is a crime for those folks. You say, “Not in my America!” Drew Edmondson says, “Yes, in MY Amerika!”
At issue here are the basic freedoms Americans enjoy. The right to Free Speech. The right to petition your government for relief from onerous burdens. The right not to have your life destroyed by an Attorney General with an agenda. If it isn’t checked in Oklahoma, that same blight will spread to other initiative states. Help Free the Oklahoma 3!