Oklahoma County Election Board
Garland Pruitt, president of the NAACP's Oklahoma City chapter, prepares to speak during a press conference Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2021, outside the Oklahoma Judicial Center. (Tres Savage)

After concluding its review of the initiative petition results submitted to spur a grand jury investigation of Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater, the Oklahoma County Election Board has determined that petitioners fell 334 valid signatures shy of the required 5,000 threshold.

“The Oklahoma County Election Board certifies that 4,666 valid signatures are contained in the petition,” the agency’s final report to the Oklahoma County Court Clerk reads, according to Oklahoma County Election Board Secretary Doug Sanderson.

The report was poorly received by those who spent 45 days leading collection efforts in an attempt to trigger an investigation of Prater. Petitioners alleged that Prater had abused his power and disproportionately targeted Black people in his prosecutions. (Prater had said he would “not be intimidated by any person or group of people threatening me with a grand jury.”)

In submitting their petition pages Dec. 6, the coordinating activists said they had turned in “well over” the 5,000 signatures required by law. On social media and in subsequent remarks, petitioners said they submitted more than 7,000 signatures.

“We knew throughout this process we were doing something novel, and we are now considering the options in front of us to challenge so many of our community members having their signatures dismissed,” said Tamya Cox Touré, executive director of the Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “This statutory opportunity is meant to empower Oklahoma citizens, and to have the Election Board so eagerly limit our voices is disappointing as well as concerning.”

Sanderson, who has been the Oklahoma County Election Board secretary since 1995, said he felt it would be inappropriate to answer specific questions about the signatures submitted in the petition.

“I can’t say too much about it, because I just don’t feel like it’s proper for me to do so,” Sanderson said. “We were checking a grand jury petition for the court, and it’s essentially a court issue.”

Pressed to elaborate on his administration’s signature validation process — which petitioners criticized as “not open to witnesses” in a press release Thursday — Sanderson said his staff has significant experience checking petitions and always does so fairly.

“Keep in mind, this is nothing new for us. I don’t recall that I’ve ever checked a grand jury petition, but we check petitions all the time, usually for party recognition or for audits and things of that nature,” he said. “So it’s a very common thing for us to check these. We’re very familiar with it.”

Sanderson said he could speak “generically” about his office’s process. In this instance, signatures had to belong to qualified electors in Oklahoma County.

“We start with the presumption that every signature is valid — that everybody who signed it is valid,” Sanderson said. “Then, secondly, we give the benefit of the doubt to the person that signed it. Then, the third thing is that every one we reject has been checked multiple times by different people.”

Sanderson declined to elaborate on what specific details are checked.

“I don’t want to get into those sort of details, because there are too many hypotheticals,” he said. “We give the benefit of the doubt. We start from the posture that every one of them is valid, and we just go from there. We looked at every single row that had a name on it, and every one of those is checked multiple times, multiple ways by different people.”

Sanderson’s clarifying phrase “that had a name on it” appeared additionally relevant in his final comments to NonDoc on the matter.

“I think there is perhaps some misunderstanding,” Sanderson said. “Each of the signature pages had 13 rows for signatures. That doesn’t mean every one of them had a signature. You see what I’m saying? But to jump to the conclusion that that meant every one of them was completed, that is not correct.

“Not all pages were complete.”

Petitioners tout ‘urgent desire’ to examine Prater

In their press release Thursday, petitioners said they were “collectively disappointed” and not immediately clear about how their efforts to investigate Prater may move forward.

“At the end of the day, there is still an urgent desire within Oklahoma County to hold District Attorney David Prater accountable for his long history of racist, targeted harm,” said Nicole McAfee, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma. “We hope to still be able to do that through the grand jury process, even with the present obstacle presented by the Oklahoma County Election Board.”

Prater, whose office was presenting information for its own and ongoing Oklahoma County grand jury this week, did not immediately respond to a request for comment shortly before the publication of this story.

The Oklahoma County Election Board is scheduled to meet at 10 a.m. Friday. The only substantive item on the board’s agenda is to “adopt new boundaries for all precincts in Oklahoma County.”