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Republicans want Oklahomans to reword Constitution to make crystal clear noncitizens can't vote

Senators David Bullard, R-Durant, left, and Micheal Bergstrom, R-Adair, talk on the Senate floor late last year.
Kyle Phillips
For Oklahoma Voice
Senators David Bullard, R-Durant, left, and Micheal Bergstrom, R-Adair, talk on the Senate floor late last year.

Some lawmakers are calling an effort to strengthen the state’s ban on noncitizens from voting in Oklahoma elections a political stunt and fear mongering.

Supporters though say the measure is needed to preserve the integrity of elections.

On the last day of the legislative session, lawmakers passed Senate Joint Resolution 23 asking voters to amend the Oklahoma Constitution.

The amendment seeks to clarify that only citizens of the United States, over the age of 18 years and who are state residents are qualified electors.

The measure proposes changing the phrase “all citizens of the United States” to “only citizens of the United States.”

Prior to the measure being taken up, commercials urged residents to call lawmakers and tell them to vote on it. It had not made it out of the Senate Rules Committee.

“What we are doing is safeguarding the intent of the constitutional language for the future to avoid confusion,” said Sen. Micheal Bergstrom, R-Adair, on the Senate floor.

Bergstrom is the Senate author.

Critics argue it’s unnecessary.

“I failed to see where the confusion might lie when it is currently a felony to register to vote in the state of Oklahoma if you are not a U.S. citizen,” said Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City, during debate.

Putting this measure on the ballot would create confusion and rile up people by making absurd claims that people are unlawfully voting in Oklahoma elections, she said.

“It’s a political game,” Hicks said.

The bill highlights the extremism in politics, Hicks said.

“While SJR 23 would not change the fact that noncitizens cannot currently register to vote or vote in our state, it could protect against future reinterpretations of our state Constitution that might allow it,” said State Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax.

Only 16cities and towns in three states allow noncitizens to vote in some elections. None are in Oklahoma.

But political observers said the unfounded notion that noncitizens could be voting has become a Republican talking point in the current election cycle.

Immigration has been a hot button issue in Oklahoma and nationally.

Sen. Mary Boren, D-Norman, said during debate that creating irrational fear is a way for some people to make money.

It has led to expensive and extensive audits and investigations in other states, she said.

Allegations of fraud in other states have not panned out, she said.

“But the click bait, money making narrative still has bills to pay,” Boren said. “So this bill is paying someone’s bills. It’s paying for some political operative out there somewhere that stirs people up and sends out mailers.”

The mailers encourage a vote for a candidate because the candidate is making sure only citizens vote, Boren said.

Lawmakers are asking voters to change the Oklahoma Constitution “just to perpetuate a money making scheme” orchestrated by political people who don’t live in Oklahoma, Boren said.

They are making millions by creating ways to pit one side against another, she said.

Sen. Shane Jett, R-Shawnee, was instrumental in getting the measure passed.

He disagrees with Boren that it is a money making deal.

The organization pushing it, Americans for Citizen Voting, is proactively trying to make sure that they stop some cities and the trend of allowing the people “floating across the border” to be able to get into the election system, effectively controlling towns, cities and some legislative elections, Jett said.

“You’ve got millions of people coming across the border that can sway votes,” he said.

Jack Tomczak is vice president of outreach for the Virginia-based Americans for Citizen Voting, which assists activists and lawmakers in passing state constitutional amendments that reserve the right to vote for only citizens of the United States.

“It is not uncommon for outside organizations to educate legislators on those issues,” he said.

Bergstrom had already authored the bill without contacting Americans for Citizen Voting, Tomczak said.

“So, it is not like we brought him the idea,” he said. “He did it all on his own.”

Twelve states currently have a citizen only voting in their constitutions, he said.

“We are hoping to add seven, at least seven, to that this year,” Tomczak said.

Polling by his group shows the public overwhelmingly supports the idea, he said.

When asked if only U.S. citizens should vote in Oklahoma, 90% of respondents said yes, he said.

When asked if the Oklahoma Constitution should be amended to make it so only U.S. citizens could vote, 83% agreed, he said.

Tomczak said he is not aware of any cities or municipalities in Oklahoma that allow noncitizens to vote.

“It’s not against the rules to fix the problem before it happens,” he said.

House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, is one of the authors.

“Voting in Oklahoma elections should be a right reserved and protected only for those who are citizens of our great state,” McCall said.

Oklahoma Voice is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oklahoma Voice maintains editorial independence.

Barbara Hoberock is a senior reporter with Oklahoma Voice. She began her career in journalism in 1989 after graduating from Oklahoma State University. She began with the Claremore Daily Progress and then started working in 1990 for the Tulsa World. She has covered the statehouse since 1994 and served as Tulsa World Capitol Bureau chief. She covers statewide elected officials, the legislature, agencies, state issues, appellate courts and elections.
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