The Oklahoma Supreme Court heard arguments on two legal challenges to a redistricting ballot initiative at the ceremonial courtroom in the Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 21. Credit: Whitney Bryen / Oklahoma Watch

A citizen-led effort to strip the Legislature of its redistricting powers is in limbo pending a decision from the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

The state’s high court heard arguments Tuesday challenging a proposed state question that seeks to create an independent panel to redraw Oklahoma’s congressional and legislative districts. The courtroom was packed, and the hearing lasted for more than two hours.  

If the proposal survives the challenge and makes it onto the ballot this year, voters will be asked to approve a process that could transform Oklahoma’s political landscape for decades to come. As the political and legal debate heats up, here are some facts to know about the proposal.  

What’s the current process? 

Like most states, Oklahoma gives the Legislature the authority to rewrite the state’s legislative and congressional boundaries every 10 years after the census.  

Within each political body, districts must have nearly the same populations: among the five congressional districts, 48 Senate districts and 101 House districts. They must also meet other criteria related to boundaries and racial fairness.  

A simple majority vote in both the House and Senate is required to approve the new maps. Since the GOP currently controls both chambers, Republicans can largely run the show.  

If the Legislature fails to pass a plan, a back-up commission of seven members – three Republicans, three Democrats and the lieutenant governor (who doesn’t get a vote) – will be responsible for creating a map. This has never occurred.  

What would the state question do?

A small group of supporters of a redistricting ballot initiative gathered outside of the Capitol Tuesday afternoon before the Oklahoma Supreme Court heard arguments on the initiative’s two legal challenges. Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch Credit: Whitney Bryen / Oklahoma Watch

If it makes the ballot and is approved by voters, State Question 804 would change the state’s constitution to set up a nine-member Citizens’ Independent Redistricting Commission. This would take effect for the redistricting process to occur in 2021.

The commission would be composed of three Republicans, three Democrats and three independents or members of a third party. This group would be allowed to hold public meetings, hire staff and consider proposed maps from both the commissioners and the public.

Six of the nine commissioners’ votes would be needed to approve a plan. If the group failed to pass one of the proposals, all the data complied to draw boundaries would be forwarded to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which would finish the job.   

Who would choose the commission? 

In the ceremonial court at the Capitol on Tuesday, Oklahoma Supreme Court justices heard arguments on two legal challenges to a proposed redistricting ballot initiative. Cameras were not allowed in the courtroom during the hearing. Credit: Whitney Bryen / Oklahoma Watch

A panel of three acting or retired judges or justices, chosen by the chief justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court, would pick the nine-member commission.  

The judicial panel would review applicants who volunteer for a spot on the commission and then narrow the list to 20 Republicans, 20 Democrats and 20 independents or members of a third party selected based on their backgrounds and relevant skills and geographical fairness.  

A random drawing from the three lots would be used to choose the first six commissioners: two from the Republican pool, two from the Democratic pool and two from the independent pool.  

These initial six commissioners would then appoint one additional commissioner to join their ranks; they would first choose a finalist from each of the three remaining pools.

Andy Moore, left, executive director of People Not Politicians, talks on his phone outside of the ceremonial Courtroom of the Oklahoma Supreme Court in the Capitol moments before oral arguments began over a proposed redistricting ballot initiative. Credit: Whitney Bryen / Oklahoma Watch

How would this be funded?

The proposed state question doesn’t say how much this will cost. Instead, it requires the Legislature to decide how much funding the Citizens’ Independent Redistricting Commission should get each year to “perform duties as prescribed by law.” 

Who is behind the state question?

A new statewide organization, called People Not Politicians, is leading the effort to get the proposed state question on the ballot. 

The group is led by The League of Women Voters of Oklahoma and Let’s Fix This, a nonprofit started in 2016 whose mission is “to educate and equip all Oklahomans to actively engage with their government.” Andy Moore, licensed professional counselor, is the founder of Let’s Fix This and the executive director of People Not Politicians.  

Why is it being challenged?

A group of citizens, represented by Oklahoma City lawyer Robert McCampbell, is challenging the initiative petition on several grounds.  

The challenge maintains the gist – a short summary that appears on the form that signature gathers use – does not adequately explain the state question. McCampbell said it notably leaves out the commission selection process and the fact that it would transfer power from the Legislature to an unelected body.  

It also says the state question would unjustly restrict Oklahomans’ First Amendment rights because applicants who want to be on the commission would be barred if they have a family member who is a party official or lobbyist.  

The Oklahoma Supreme Court did not rule immediately Tuesday, it’s not clear when the court will make its ruling.

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