This year, Governor Fallin signed 394 pieces of legislation. I was the primary Senate author of 11 of those bills. Over 11 days, I am telling the story of each bill – where it came from, how it progressed through the Legislature, and what it means to the people of Oklahoma. This is in keeping with my longstanding support of transparency, and hopefully you’ll find this exercise insightful.
The first page of SB 1016.
Today, we continue with Senate Bill 1016, which makes continuing progress toward full implementation of an online voter registration system.
In 2015, I introduced a package of ten bills intended to increase voter turnout, which has fallen to woeful levels in Oklahoma. One of my bills that year, and also one of the bills I expected to be most difficult to pass, gave Oklahomans the ability to register to vote online. Previously, the only option was a paper form that you mail, and in this day and age, it’s pretty antiquated and discouraging to have that as your only option. I was very pleased that by the end of the 2015 session, we had passed the bill authorizing an online registration system, and it had total support from the Election Board Secretary, Paul Ziriax. But though legislative authorization was a major hurdle, it was also a major hurdle to fund and implement the change. The good news was, we always had funding identified. There are still federal Help America Vote funds that can be used only for projects just like this. But implementation still loomed. And as is often the case, it was eventually determined that more legislation was needed to facilitate implementation.
SB 1016 is what is often referred to in the Legislature as a “clean-up bill.” All session long, you will hear legislators describe something as a clean-up bill, usually following upon some major initiative passed in a previous year. I have learned that once you take on a cause, and especially if you succeed, you have also bought yourself years of running clean-up bills.
Before session began, Paul Ziriax came to me and said he was working on a bunch of legislative fixes related to the implementation of online registration, and some of them also involved the Department of Public Safety. As such, he didn’t have final language for a bill yet, but he had some. So we moved forward with what he had, and unlike my usual approach of trying to pass something as fast and as easily as possible, we resolved from the beginning we would take SB 1016 to conference committee so that Paul would have the full four months to finalize his language.
With Paul’s support, the bill never hit any snags. He has a lot of credibility at the Capitol, and usually the only question legislators would have was, “Does Paul Ziriax support this?” That’s a good lesson for lots of issues. Because legislators vote on literally hundreds of bills every session, most of which they couldn’t possibly have expertise on, trusting in others is often a necessity. When it comes to election law, Paul has that trust.
SB 1016 passed committee and the full Senate unanimously, with title struck. I have discussed striking the title in previous episodes. In this case, I didn’t need to get title struck to demonstrate to someone that I understood this was a work in progress and that I would need to amend it to get their support. I struck title because it truly was a work in progress, so much so that I needed it to go all the way through the process without a title so it would head to conference committee, where we would finalize the language.
I secured Rep. Gary Banz as my House author. He had carried the online registration bill in 2015, and like me, had therefore bought himself indefinite ownership of all future clean-up bills. Gary had no trouble passing the House. He amended it slightly, or it would have gone to the Governor’s desk without title and be ineligible to become law. These are the rules of the game, and though they get a little obscure, you’ve got to remember them as you navigate the process.
Now, we were in conference committee. Paul finalized his language. His final bill had various technical fixes, including language to ensure that when the Elections Board verifies the information submitted by an applicant with the Department of Public Safety, that DPS would not turn over its records to the Election Board. These are not highly controversial issues, but statute can be detailed (somewhat to my chagrin, as I think we micromanage too much), and lots of issues have to be addressed one way or the other.
This is a bit of a digression, but it is worth noting here that assuming you can still pass the bill, one can theoretically introduce concepts into conference bills that have not been raised the entire session. A lot has been done to make sure conference bills are thoroughly vetted (especially after past scandals related to provisions quietly snuck into them), but the possibility for mischief still remains. I have had people come to me requesting insertion of a 10-page bill into a two-page conference report, and I have always rejected those proposals. If there is some urgent need that came up late in session (the oral sodomy court case this year is a perfect example), then that might be acceptable, but I think conference committee bills ought to be on the same topic they were as they progressed through the process all session.
Returning to our tale, as I explained at length in Episode 4, conference committee is like starting over, except that in the Senate the committee doesn’t meet. The author just walks around and collects signatures. For an hour the second week of May, Paul and I walked around the halls of the Senate and gathered our signatures. With this bill, unlike in Episode 4, I even had time to get the signatures of the Democrats. Online registration had always been a bipartisan initiative, and I wanted to maintain that.
Rep. Gary Banz did his work on his side, passed it through conference committee, and then I presented my bill on the Senate floor on May 17th and passed it 46-0. Then it went over to the House, where Rep. Banz passed it 78-3 on May 19th. As I’ve stated before, unanimous votes in the House seem impossible to obtain, and on this vote, even my own House Representative, who has publicly stated support for improving voter turnout, voted “no.”
Gary Banz is term-limited this year, and SB 1016 was his last bill to present. After its passage, Gary told me he got into politics registering people to vote, and that he really liked that he went out of politics still helping people to register. SB 1016 then went to the Governor’s desk. I sent the Governor a letter explaining it, and Paul checked-in with her office as well. She signed SB 1016 on May 24th.
SB 1016 was mostly technical, definitely a “clean-up bill,” and its content was entirely driven by a state agency (the Elections Board). Its passage was also entirely necessary to maintaining progress on an initiative I have championed, namely online voter registration. And with passage of SB 1016, I remain hopeful you will see that system in place by 2017.
Tomorrow, we’ll continue with another episode of #11BillsIn11Days.