Oklahoma lawmakers are in the early stages of planning for the decennial redistricting process that will rewrite the state’s legislative and congressional districts.
The redistricting work, will occur after the U.S. Census Bureau provides states with the latest population figures sometime before the end of 2020, has the potential to alter Oklahoma’s political dynamics for the next 10 years.
Unless a proposed state question to create an independent redistricting panel makes next year’s ballot, the Republcian-controlled Legislature will be in charge of the process for the second consecutive decade.
To help explain how census data, computers and bargaining come together to make new political maps, KGOU’s Dick Pryor and eCapitol’s Shawn Ashley spoke with University of Oklahoma political scientist Keith Gaddie on KGOU’s Capitol Insider. This transcript has been edited slightly for brevity and clarity.
– Trevor Brown, Oklahoma Watch
Shawn Ashley: Keith, you’ve long been involved in advising states on legislative and congressional redistricting, which will happen in 2021. What are state officials doing now to prepare for it?
Gaddie: The first thing you have to do is get organized and get the legislative process ready, because when you draw legislative maps, you’re passing law. And this means there needs to be a committee in each chamber, in the House and the Senate, to deal with redistricting. They’re going to deal with redistricting these state legislative maps to make populations equal and the congressional district maps to make populations equal across each district and also prepare to help support the counties in crafting the county commission districts.
Dick Pryor: This is based on the census, correct?
Gaddie: Yes. The census requires, according to the Constitution, an actual enumeration of persons.
Pryor: That is residents.
Gaddie: That’s residents – people who are in the state the day you count.
Ashley: Once we’ve enumerated the residents of the state and the Legislature gets that data, what do they do with it?
Gaddie: The first thing they do is ingest all the data with a big computer. These systems use what’s called a Geographic Information System, and the population data are assigned to a census block, which is a tiny piece of geography … You have to figure out how to align the census data with your voting precincts, and what will be in there is not just a count of people but also racial and demographic data.
Pryor: So computers do this, but there is a human element.
Gaddie: Yes. And the thing about a computer is, it’s just a tool. The computer has to have a set of assumptions built in, and any set of assumptions are going to leave behind a certain amount of bias. There are always going to be limits to what a computer can do unguided and unaided. There is also a political dimension that comes into play. One thing we know about districts is that people think districts should look like brownies in a pan when they look at a map. They think it ought to be a lot of nice, clean shapes. But sometimes communities don’t really organize themselves that way. We used to have a congressional district in Oklahoma back in mid-century that started in Osage County and stretched across the entire Cherokee Purchase all the way to New Mexico, out to the panhandle. It was a long, narrow district, but it was a reasonable district. It actually made sense at the time. But, you know, that’s an assumption that a compact-map computer program wouldn’t recognize. So you have to have room for politics, negotiating and bargaining.
Ashley: How might districts change in Oklahoma in the state Legislature and the five congressional seats?
Gaddie: The congressional seats will probably largely stand pat. The big thing you have to understand with regard to legislative change is that Oklahoma City, Canadian County and Cleveland County are booming. These are booming, growing areas. Tulsa County, the city of Tulsa, is not really growing – it’s somewhat stagnant. But the suburbs around Tulsa are growing. And (in the Oklahoma City area), what this means is Congressional District 5 probably actually will need to shed population, which ends up making a safer district for Kendra Horn. So one of the questions will be, do the Republicans really think they can go back and grab five congressional seats by dismantling Oklahoma County in three different directions, which is something the Democrats actually did back in the 1970s. Everybody forgets this. We’ve been here before with a different party.
Pryor: So, do you think Seminole and Pottawatomie counties may drop out of the Fifth District?
Gaddie: They could drop out of the fifth because what’s going to happen is Congressional District 3 is going to go looking for population. So you’re either going to cut into Tom Cole’s seat, Kendra Horn’s seat, or you’re going to cut into Markwayne Mullin’s seat. But the cities are booming. The rural areas are largely in decline. You go west of Enid, almost every county out there is engaged in an active, actual population loss right now. Legislative seats are going to start gravitating more toward the metro, because, put simply, it’s impossible to still maintain the number of rural seats that are out there. Seats are going to have to disappear and pop up in the city.
More episodes of Capitol Insider can be found on the KGOU website.