Personhood: coming to a ballot near you

Two weeks ago Personhood Oklahoma quietly announced that they would begin collecting signatures to put the personhood issue to a vote this November. I write ‘quietly’ because, despite the press conference, their announcement didn’t seem to garner much media attention. The national media was still focused on the Senator McIntyre’s rally sign and understandably Oklahomans were still outraged about Senate Bill 1433.

A lot of people inside and outside of Oklahoma are trying to make personhood happen in a lot of different ways. Some are going the bill route (SB 1433, HB 1571). Some are pushing to amend the Oklahoma Constitution (House Joint Resolution 1067, Personhood Oklahoma). The legislative process is confusing even for a law student like me (I know, right? I thought after almost 2 years in law school, I’d know more too everything). So let’s sort out this personhood business together.

How a bill becomes a law:

For Sen. Brian Crain’s SB 1433 to become a law, here is what must happen:

  1. Senator Crain files the bill in the Senate
  2. A Senate Committee of just a few Senators approves it
  3. It goes to the Senate floor to be voted on
  4. If the Senate approves it by a majority vote, it goes to a House committee
  5. If a House committee approves it, it goes to the House floor
  6. If the House approves, it goes to the Governor’s desk
  7. The Governor can either sign it into law or veto it
  8. If the Governor vetoes it, the bill can still become law if the Senate and House each vote by a 2/3rd majority to override the veto

this is not how it works in Oklahoma since we are usually sad when a bill becomes a law, amiright?

This process can also work the other way – i.e. a bill originates in the House, gets approved, goes to the Senate, etc.. SB 1433 is stuck in House Committee right now. HB 1571, similar to SB 1433 and passed by the House last legislative session, remains stuck in Senate committee. In Oklahoma, bills hang around for 2 legislative sessions, so the Senate could still vote on HB 1571 though this bill will likely be dropped in favor of SB 1433.

How to amend the Oklahoma Constitution:

You know what? I’m tired. I’ll let the Tulsa World explain citizen-led ballot initiatives to you:

The petition process

To get the proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot, the petition must bear signatures equaling at least 15 percent of the number of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election.

Votes cast in the Nov. 2, 2010, gubernatorial election: 1,034,767

15 percent: 155,216

Number of signatures sought by Personhood Oklahoma: Closer to 200,000

Petition circulating began: Thursday

Must be submitted: Within 90 days to Secretary of State’s office

After signatures are counted: Oklahoma Supreme Court must determine whether sufficient

If sufficient: Governor sets date for vote

An amendment has more legal significance than a bill. Whenever the two conflict, a state constitutional amendment always trumps a state law. To me, it’s looking like a citizen vote on the personhood issue this November is inevitable unless of course Personhood Oklahoma doesn’t get the needed signatures.

Amending a state constitution is an expensive endeavor – according to Parents Against Personhood, out-of-state organizations spent $1 million in Mississippi during the campaign to pass personhood there last Fall. In Oklahoma, proponents are putting their money where their truly frightening principles are. From mailing petitions to robo calls, featuring formor U.S. Senator JC Watts to out-of-state groups funneling somewhere north of $50,000 into radio and television ads here, personhood has some powerful backers.

This is an actual photo of an actual Oklahoma personhood petition - try not to throw up on your keyboard.

As gloomy as this all sounds, I’m optimistic. I’d rather be talking to my neighbor about personhood than my representative, who is going to maintain his “pro-life” position no matter how many phone calls I make. This is not to suggest that lobbying is always ineffective, but regardless of whether the House passes SB 1433, it’s likely that we’ll be voting on personhood. In addition to lobbying at the capitol, we need to be preparing for a voter education campaign. Last Fall, with little money and little notice, grassroots activists in Mississippi defeated their personhood measure by a margin of 57% to 43%, though Mississippians initially favored the measure when polled. If they can do it, so can we!

Mallory wishes she had paid more attention to her elementary school teachers when they tried to learn her some lawmaking.

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