Lawmakers, party heads want fairness in redistricting

A map of Oklahoma shows the boundaries of the state’s House of Representatives Districts, which could change due to the redistricting process to begin in 2020 and end in 2021.

Talk regarding the state of Oklahoma's future makeup has begun among lawmakers, as the state's redistricting process is slated to begin in early 2020.

The Constitution requires states to reshape district lines every 10 years, once the U.S. Census Bureau releases population figures. While the lines of Oklahoma's legislative map won't actually be redrawn until 2021, legislators have to prepare for the process by creating committees to make populations equal across each district.

"Once they get that overall population number and decide how many citizens are going to be in a Senate and a House district, then they have to look at districts' boundaries as they are now," said State Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, R-Muskogee.

That's where it gets tricky, said Pemberton. Once population sizes are determined, some districts could end up shrinking and others could grow. The lines of some districts might have to be drawn to encompass a larger area so that each district has the same number of voters.

The end result of the process could alter the shape of Oklahoma, as it can lead to different representation for districts, like it did ten years ago.

"When they redrew the lines in 2010, Earl Garrison actually became the senator over in Tahlequah and he was not elected by those people over there, because at the time he first ran that was not the same district," said Pemberton. "So his district actually changed."

During the last redistricting mission, the House of Representatives outlook remained fairly the same.

"Last time, it was the senate that changed a lot," said State Rep. Matt Meredith, D-Tahlequah. "The late [State Sen.] Jim Wilson, during his last few years, he didn't even live in his own district, because they drew him plumb out."

The loss of a state senate seat in Cherokee County was the result. Nancy Garber, of the Cherokee County Democrats, said the district lines were gerrymandered so that parts of the county could be absorbed by surrounding Wagoner and Muskogee Counties.

"This dilutes a political party's influences by spreading out its voters to prevent a majority voting bloc on a district level," said Garber. "A legal challenge by the late Senator Jim Wilson, who sought to protect the interests of Cherokee County voters, was eventually dismissed by a district court, but left unanswered concerns about the constitutionality of the state's redistricting plan."

House Speaker Charles McCall announced earlier this month that he will be appointing members to a bipartisan House Redistricting Committee to umpire the undertaking. No word has come from Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat about what Senate committee might look like, but he has suggested that process will be in-depth.

The concern for most folks - legislators and party advocates - is that members from both sides of the isle will be included and that the process will be conducted fairly.

"I would like to see an independent redistricting, because that's where it's going to be fair for all sides," said Meredith. "Then you don't have the gerrymandering in the end. If that doesn't happen, I hope the speaker sticks to his word about trying to have a fair process."

The main concern among many folks is the possibility of gerrymandered districts that would minimize or maximize the voting power of one political party. Because of the Republican Party's supermajority control of both chamber of the Legislature, it has the most control over reshaping the districts.

Pemberton said gerrymandering has been occurring "forever," but he doesn't know of anyone who purposely wants it to take place, adding that it should be equitable for all.

"There may be people that would like to see a specific advantage, but I don't think that's the way things are meant to be," he said. "I think we need to try to make it as fair as possible and not try to scoop certain sections out to give one party advantage over the other."

McCall has also said his House Redistricting Committee will have subcommittees to focus on different regions of the state. Also, he has plans for the HRC to host town hall meetings across the state, and for it to receive input from local and county officials.

Garber said the the 2020 Census will, ideally, allow for the committee and local citizens to review the constitutionality of the state's redistricting plan.

"Of course, to offset the prospect of political gerrymandering, Democrats must be willing to take a stand that focuses on fairness rather than partisanship," she said.

Oklahoma Democrats have reportedly been cautious when it comes to whether they'll receive a fair shake come redistricting time. Some legislators believe Democrats were left somewhat out of the loop during the 2011 redistricting process, while Republicans believe the process was fair for all.

Whether one side ends up disappointed or not, Cherokee County Young Republicans Chair Justin Kennedy said it is still lawmakers' duty to conduct process.

"Anytime you do something like that, there's always going to be the foil hats screaming gerrymandering," he said. "I can remember that even when I was as a little kid - everybody's talking about gerrymandering anytime they wanted to redistrict anything. But of course if you don't do it, then you're not really upholding the oath to uphold the constitution."

While McCall and Treat will decide which members will be appointed to the committee, Meredith said he would love to be added to the mix. He said he's the only rural Democrat in the state and that others want his seat "pretty bad."

"It'll be interesting," he said. "It's a little harder to do what they did to Jim [Wilson] on the House side, because we don't have as big of districts. But I wouldn't put anything past them, to be honest."

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