OKLAHOMA CITY – Legislators draw local, state and national political district lines “to block opponents,” contends Andy Moore, executive director of “People Not Politicians.” The pols “draw districts that ensure they’re safe so they won’t face a strong challenge from their own [political] party or the other party.”
People Not Politicians is a coalition whose goal is elimination of gerrymandering: the practice of drawing the geographic lines of political districts in such a way that gives one political party an advantage in elections.
PNP is led by Let’s Fix This, the League of Women Voters of Oklahoma, and a coalition of individuals of all political stripes (Republicans, Democrats, Independents and Libertarians) who have launched a campaign to place redistricting in the hands of an independent non-elected citizen commission. “We need to take politicians out of the process,” Moore said.
PNP filed an initiative petition in October 2019, seeking enough signatures to submit the proposal to voters across the state – particularly since the U.S. Supreme Court sidestepped the issue last year. However, the coronavirus pandemic “slowed us down, so we were unable to get on the ballot this year,” Moore explained.
Consequently, PNP withdrew the petition on July 17 – the birthdate of Elbridge Gerry, a 19th century politician from whose name the sobriquet was derived.
The PNP petition was modified and refiled last week. If it survives a legal challenge, the next step will be collecting 180,000 signatures to get the proposed constitutional amendment placed on a statewide ballot.
Gathering signatures “hopefully will start within a few weeks,” Moore said Tuesday evening during a 52-minute telephonic “town hall” meeting. “We’re looking to get on the ballot in 2022.”
NEW POLITICAL LINES DRAWN EVERY DECADE
Redistricting, also known as “reapportionment,” is required every 10 years after completion of the decennial federal census.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1962, in the landmark Baker v. Carr case, that state congressional districts of unequal population were unconstitutional. The nation's high court extended the principle of “one person, one vote,” to state legislative districts in the Reynolds v. Sims case in 1964, declaring that the voting power of each voter should be as equal as possible to that of any other voter.
In Oklahoma, as in other states, too, legislative districts “are drawn to lump voters together,” Moore said. “But they should be drawn to reflect our neighborhoods and not to protect politicians.”
Some district lines “have been drawn right down the middle of a street,” dividing people who “live in the same neighborhood and share common interests,” he said. “A bunch” of Oklahoma legislative district boundaries “are just squirrelly looking,” Moore said.
As an example, he pointed to House District 41, which stretches from Yukon in Canadian County to Hillsdale in Garfield County north of Enid. “I don’t know what their shared concerns would be.”
He also mentioned Senate District 30, in the Oklahoma City metro, “which looks like a big letter ‘C’,” he noted.
Another is House District 99 in OKC. It stretches from SE 15th Street to NW 125th Street, and from Sooner Road in the southeast to Greystone Avenue in the northwest.
PNP PROPOSAL WOULD TURN TO AN INDEPENDENT PANEL
People Not Politicians proposes to create a nine-member “omnipartisan, all-inclusive” group of private citizens to draw electoral lines.
A group of retired state judges and retired Supreme Court Justices would vet a pool of candidates consisting of Republicans, Democrats, and individuals “not affiliated with either major political party,” Moore said.
The Citizens’ Independent Redistricting Commission would be comprised of three Republicans, three Democrats, and three persons unaffiliated with either of those two political parties. Requirements of commission candidates would include:
• must have lived in Oklahoma for five years;
• has not held, and does not have a family member who has held, a partisan elective office at the federal, state or local level in this state in the preceding five years;
• is not a registered lobbyist and does not have an immediate family member who is a lobbyist;
• has not held office nor served as a paid staff member for a political party in the past five years;
• has not been nominated by a political party as a candidate for an elective office in this state in the preceding five years;
• has not been an employee or a paid consultant of the Oklahoma Legislature or the U.S. Congress in the previous five years.
Approval of any redistricting plan would require the approval of at least six of the nine commissioners, including one from each of the two major parties and at least one commissioner unaffiliated with either of those two parties.
Legislative and congressional districts would have to:
• comply with federal laws;
• contain equal population numbers, with a variation of no more than 5%;
• be drawn as contiguous as possible;
• be as compact as possible;
• and could not favor nor disfavor any political party or any racial group.
REDISTRICTING PROCESS HAS ALREADY STARTED
The Republican-dominated Legislature has already begun the reapportionment process and will complete the task in 2021.
If PNP succeeds in getting its proposal on the ballot and endorsed by state voters, those lines could be redrawn again. The organization’s revised proposal “includes language that would allow the commission to conduct a new redistricting as soon as voters approve the measure,” Moore said. “We want to ensure Oklahomans do not have to wait 10 more years to have fair maps.”
Fourteen states have independent redistricting commissions, though the compositions and formats vary, Moore said.
Oklahoma politicians “are not wild about this,” Moore said of PNP.
“The Oklahoma Republican Party stands behind the Oklahoma Legislature and trusts members of both parties to fairly draw new boundaries based on the results of the 2020 Census,” state Republican Party Chairman David McLain said on July 17.
However, anyone who has ever worked for the Legislature, or has otherwise been involved in the reapportionment process, knows that members of the dominant political party draw the political lines to benefit their party. Democrats did it during the decades when they controlled the Legislature, and the Republicans did it in 2010-11 after they assumed control of both the state Senate and the state House of Representatives.
The practice of “gerrymandering” is named for Elbridge Thomas Gerry.
In 1812, while Gerry was serving as governor of Massachusetts, the state adopted new constitutionally mandated electoral district boundaries. The Republican Legislature created district boundaries intended to enhance their party’s control over state and national offices. Despite the partisan districting, Gerry signed the legislation.
The shape of one of the state senate districts was compared to a salamander by a newspaper in a political cartoon which referred to it as a “Gerrymander”. The name has stuck for more than 200 years.
Editor’s note: Mike W. Ray worked for the Oklahoma House of Representatives for 19 years, and observed firsthand the redistricting process in 1990-91 and again in 2000-01.