A group that wants storm shelters in every Oklahoma school has spent the last 90 days gathering signatures to get its initiative petition on the ballot. Take Shelter Oklahoma is still tens of thousands of signatures short of the required amount, but proponents now have more time than they originally thought.
Accompanied by Danni Legg, the mother of a third grader killed when a tornado hit Moore’s Plaza Towers Elementary, Take Shelter Oklahoma’s attorney David Slane traveled across the state last week, rounding up support for the group’s campaign.
“Today, we're visiting here in Lawton and asking the people in Comanche County specifically, ‘We need your help. Your children are at risk also,’” Slane said.
The duo announced one final push to gather the 155,000 signatures needed to create a $500 million bond to fund safe rooms in schools across Oklahoma. They had 90 days to collect those signatures, and they thought their time ran out last week.
But when Slane contacted the state, he found out Take Shelter actually has until October 20th, giving the group almost an entire extra month.
“We welcome the additional time,” Slane said. “Candidly, we feel like this is a last ditch effort. This time is critical. Without this time, we would fail. With this time, we might not fail.”
That additional time comes because of confusion about when the 90-day clock actually started. Secretary of State Chris Benge says it’s not as straightforward as you might think.
“The process and the statutes are, admittedly, a little muddy on this,” he said.
While the timing worked out in Take Shelter Oklahoma’s favor, Benge says it’s dangerous to start collecting signatures early. Things don’t always go as smoothly as they did here, and he thinks the group really just got lucky.
The attorney general approved the ballot title, so it immediately went to that step of the public challenging, and nobody in the public did, so it worked out in this case,” Benge said.
But even if they get enough signatures, it’s still too late for the group to bring its measure to a vote this November. The state election board has to prepare ballots for absentee voters, and the deadline for that was almost a month ago.
“When you back up from that November election day, in this year, it was the Labor Day weekend that was really what I considered all of their true deadlines if they were going to get it on the ballot this November,” Benge said.
Danni Legg, the mom who lost her son when last year’s tornado leveled his school, knows they’ve missed the deadline, but she’s still grateful for the additional time.
“It's given us new light for me and my family,” she said. “It's not so grim because we saw the finish line.”
Her glimmer of hope comes from her group’s original attempt to get this measure on the ballot. Take Shelter Oklahoma tried to gather enough signatures last year, but ended up falling short of the required amount. This extra month means they might finally be successful.
Supporters of the proposal are still treading carefully, though. Slane says the more time passes since the deadly tornadoes, the easier it is for voters to forget.
“That urgency is gone. We get complacent,” Slane said. “We had a mild tornado season, one of the mildest in Oklahoma, it's pretty easy to just go on. We're onto new things, other things. It's old news.”
It’s unclear exactly how many signatures Take Shelter Oklahoma currently has, but Slane says the group still needs at least 60,000.
And Secretary of State Chris Benge says supporters could hit yet another bump in the road if anyone comes forward to challenge any of the signatures they collect.