Tahlequah Daily Press

Local News

September 23, 2011

Redistricting suit headed to court

TAHLEQUAH — A judge could determine next month whether State Sen. Jim Wilson’s effort to throw out the proposed Senate redistricting plan succeeds.

The outcome will not affect the Tahlequah Democrat personally, as he is term-limited and cannot seek re-election in 2012. However, it will determine whether his successor represents what Wilson calls a coherent district with common interests, or a district that stretches from the edge of Tulsa, to the Grand Lake area, to southern Adair and Cherokee counties.

The proposed district does not include Tahlequah, but attaches it to the district currently represented by State Sen. Earl Garrison, D-Muskogee.

Redistricting is required every 10 years after U.S. Census results become available.

Wilson said an Oklahoma County District Court judge will hear a motion to dismiss his lawsuit Oct. 11, and has scheduled a trial on the lawsuit Oct. 17. He’s optimistic that since the trial date has been set, the judge will deny the state’s motion for dismissal.

“It’s a preliminary injunction to stop implementation of the redistricting plan,” Wilson said.

The proposed plan, described by Wilson and others as a prime example of gerrymandering for political interests, was drawn up by Karl Ahlgren, a longtime GOP political consultant and former chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., during Coburn’s tenure representing the 2nd Congressional District.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court previously denied hearing the case, saying the more proper venue was in district court.

“We never sued over population or community dilution,” Wilson said. “We just sued over political subdivisions, so they don’t split cities and counties, and historical populations or communities of interest. Compactness was a big thing, and contiguousness.”

Tahlequah and Cherokee County have traditionally been part of Senate District 3, which Wilson represents. The district also covers Adair County and part of Sequoyah County — the area Wilson calls the heart of the Cherokee Nation.

On Oct. 17, Wilson plans to present testimony from Tahlequah Mayor Jason Nichols about the effect of splitting Cherokee County on local residents.

His attorney also will present testimony from county commissioners and school board members in areas where the Senate districts are split, in defiance to tradition or the commonality of population interests.

“I’m going to try to find a school board member from Yukon, where the town was actually split,” Wilson said.

He believes there is precedent for his lawsuit. In 2002, an Oklahoma County judge approved a “continuity” congressional redistricting plan supported by Gov. Frank Keating and Republicans in the Oklahoma congressional delegation.

The controversy resulted from the need to reduce the state’s congressional districts from six to five.

“It basically had the same arguments that we had. The interesting thing was that he [Keating] won in district court, and the Supreme Court had refused to hear it,” Wilson said. “I think it’s a precedent.”

He said there also is a precedent in Mississippi, where the state kept its old district system for an additional two years because officials were unable to resolve it.

“The defense has never argued that I’m wrong. They’ve avoided any defense of their plan,” Wilson said. “They have continued to argue that they didn’t have time to defend it. They’ve never argued that I’m wrong. I don’t think that we’re out of time, but they will continue to argue that.”

Wilson has provided a proposed alternative redistricting, drawn by Dr. Michael McDonald, an associate professor at George Mason University, Fairfax, Va. Wilson said the alternative plan minimizes the division of counties and maintains contiguous populations with common interests in the same districts.

According to McDonald, his plan conforms to all state and federal constitutional requirements.

McDonald wrote that his plan ensures “that all districts are of equal population, more so than the plan adopted by the Oklahoma state government. The districts I have drawn are further, on average, more compact and split fewer county boundaries than the plan adopted by the Oklahoma state government.”

He said the plan better represents Oklahoma communities.

The state-adopted plan calls for a population of 78,943 in the largest district and 77,350 in the smallest; McDonald’s proposal has 78,929 in the largest, 77,350 in the smallest. The state plan splits counties 80 times (some counties are in more than one state Senate district), while the alternative plan splits counties 62 times.

Wilson said the state’s plan divides many districts traditionally represented by one senator.

“It doesn’t make sense that they’ve split Delaware County down the middle and joined it to Craig County,” he said. “The only one that’s worse that ours [District 3], I think, is the district in Oklahoma County that’s divided by Lake Hefner. The rule is, it has to be contiguous. You have to be able to drive from one end of the district to the other.”

Cherokee County Election Board Secretary Connie Parnell is waiting on the outcome of Wilson’s lawsuit to move ahead with changes in her office. In addition to redistricting’s effect on Cherokee County precincts, the state is converting to a new election computer system. So far, she has not been able to complete drawing up the new precincts.

“We aren’t moving forward,” she said. “We have some ‘what ifs’ and we have gone forward and looked at what we could do. If they dismiss on the 11th, I just move forward. If they don’t dismiss and go to trial, I still will have to go forward. It’s still a work in progress.”

She has to have her new precinct boundaries approved by Dec. 1. Some counties already have approved their new boundaries and may have to change them if Wilson’s lawsuit is successful.

“I have several polling place changes if it goes through the way it has been drawn,” Parnell said. “There are lines that divide precincts in half, there are precincts the line divides in thirds.”

Whatever happens with the lawsuits, Cherokee County will have fewer precincts when voters return to the polls for school elections Feb. 14.

 The state has asked counties to reduce their precincts by 10 percent, and Parnell is cutting the number of precincts to 22, down from 25.

“The [state] House lines didn’t change that much. The Senate districts, where we once had one, we will now have three,” Parnell said.

Under the new system, ballots will be printed out by precinct and each precinct will receive “personalized” ballots with the proper candidates listed.

“Each precinct will have its own group of ballots. There’s no margin of error there,” Parnell said.

The school elections also will mark most people’s first experience with the new state voter ID law.

The official voter card issued to all registered voters will suffice, Parnell said. No driver’s license or other photo ID is necessary if a person has a voter card.

However, her office needs current addresses and names of all registered voters in order to mail out the new cards.

People who have gotten married, changed their names, moved, or otherwise had an address change should contact her office to correct their name and address information so they will encounter no problems on election day.

Some voters will find that their precinct numbers and polling places have changed. That information will be included on their new voter ID cards.

 Parnell said she hopes to mail the new ID cards out in December.

She will announce the mailing in the Daily Press. That’s why it’s important she has the correct names and mailing addresses of all registered voters.

“With the proof of ID law, everyone’s going to get a new card,” she said. “If the precinct number has changed, the old card’s not valid.”

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