Connerly Campaign Surrenders in Oklahoma

The campaign to ban affirmative action in five states has suffered its first loss with Ward Connerly, chief backer of the effort, saying Monday he is abandoning the Oklahoma campaign for lack of enough signatures on petitions to get the issue on the November voting ballot.

Connerly opponents, a coalition of traditional civil rights advocates including the American Civil Liberties Union and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, hailed the Connerly camp decision, filed in court papers last Friday. They had contested the validity of petition signatures turned into and accepted by the secretary of state.

“We knew it was going to be a problematic campaign in Oklahoma, but we decided to roll the dice anyway,” Connerly said Monday in a telephone interview. “It was just a miscalculation. We’re not going to waste anymore time or money on it,” this year, he said. “We’ll be back.”

The decision to bail out of Oklahoma, where Connerly’s ballot initiative was expected to easily win approval this fall by the state’s overwhelmingly conservative voters, narrows his “Super Tuesday Equal Rights Campaign” to four states Arizona, Colorado, Missouri and Nebraska. Voters would be asked to ban race and gender “preferences” in public college admissions and awarding of government contracts.

The one state in the ‘safe’ column to date is Colorado, Connerly said. The other three are engaged in petition drives and, in the case of Missouri, a court fight. Connerly said he would now focus his money and energy on those states, in hopes of having proposed constitutional amendments on ballots in at least three states.

The surprise move in Oklahoma followed an early March court challenge by the ACLU and its coalition of Connerly opponents. In papers filed with the Oklahoma Supreme Court, the coalition objected to the “signature count verified by the secretary of state.”

The Secretary of State said the Connerly forces appeared to have sufficient signatures to get on the ballot based on a numerical count, although there were “large numbers of duplicate names and addresses discovered well into the signature counting process” and that there were likely to be more.

The coalition charged the signature count was “defective” for a number of reasons. Some of the names were of people who were not legal voters in Oklahoma, they charged. Some of the signatures were from people who signed more than once. Some petitions were circulated by people who were not legal residents of Oklahoma, a violation of state law. Also, some signatures were not properly verified or notarized, the group claimed.

While not addressing those claims directly, lawyers for the Oklahoma Civil Rights Initiative, as Connerly’s local group is called, said in court papers filed Friday that the proponents “do not believe” they could meet the 90-day time frame required to get 138,970 signatures on petitions “despite their best efforts.” Connerly said the typical valid signature rate is 70 to 75 percent and, based on the signatures collected by the filing deadline, he would have needed a 90 percent validity rate.

Connerly said Oklahoma laws are far more rigid that those of his other ballot initiative states and that made Oklahoma “problematic” for several reasons. There was the 90-day time frame the state set for getting signatures. Most states allow at least 120 days. The state requires all circulators of petitions be residents of the state. Most states don’t, he said. Oklahoma requires petitioners to secure enough valid signatures to equal at least 15 percent of the number of votes received by the highest vote-getter in the state’s last general election. Most states require a smaller percentage.

“Hell no, they didn’t defeat us,” Connerly said, when asked if the Oklahoma decision represented a defeat of his efforts by his opponents. “The process defeated us.”

Connerly said his campaign spent $300,000 on its signature collection efforts in Oklahoma, much paid to a company that conducts petition signature collection campaigns. He said he did not blame the company for his troubles, again citing the state’s rigid rules, people signing more than once on different occasions and acts of “sabotage” of petitions by people who simply sign phony names. “There are all kinds of things that can go wrong,” he said.

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