More competition on election day often leads to ballot access restrictions

Oklahoma regularly sees over half of its state lawmakers run unopposed in November, but 2016 saw the highest number of legislative seats on the general election ballot in twenty years. The Legislature quickly reacted to this outbreak of democracy by raising filing fees. At this time 81 of 125 legislative offices appear set to never be on the ballot on November 6th. Candidate filing is April 11–13 and it’s a certainty that some unexpected candidacies will reduce that number, but it is just as certain that more than doubling the fee will discourage many from filing.

This is not atypical behavior. Oklahoma may have been one of Gary Johnson’s best states in 2016 but it is also the state that has had the lowest number of presidential candidates on its ballot in every election since 1992. The 5% signature requirement that was in place from 1974 to 2014 was widely considered to be the worst ballot access law in the nation. It was put in place during an extended period in the state where Democrats held large majorities in the Legislature and most if not all statewide offices but the state’s electoral votes were going to Republicans. Since statehood Oklahoma had required a petition of 5,000 signatures for a new party to participate in elections, but in 1968 George Wallace won over 20% of the state’s vote, including winning Atoka and Pushmataha Counties. Four years later the Democrat nominee for president was George McGovern, who received just 24% in Oklahoma. If Wallace hadn’t been shot and then chose to mount another campaign as an alternative to the two establishment parties then the Oklahoma Democratic Party would have been faced with the prospect of finishing a distant third. Thus, they chose to make it far more difficult for any alternative party to get on the ballot.

After historic lows in voter turnout, Oklahoma lawmakers became concerned enough to consider various reforms, including the aforementioned reduction in petition requirements for ballot access. But with the jump in candidacies in 2016, they are back to erecting barriers to participation.