Oklahoma’s legislative districts are set to look much different for many voters next election season.
Republican House and Senate leaders unveiled their proposed legislative redistricting plans this week, setting up potential floor votes on the packages.
Because of a delay from the U.S. Census Bureau in releasing its data, Oklahoma and states across the country have yet to receive the final population figures used to redraw state and legislative and congressional districts every decade.
That means Oklahoma lawmakers will have to return for a special session to finish redistricting work in late summer or early fall, when the final data is expected to be ready.
But state lawmakers will need to at least pass a legislative redistricting placeholder, using population estimates from the Census Bureau, this session since the state constitution requires that work be completed by the May 28 session deadline.
There’s no such requirement for congressional redistricting.
The legislative plan can be overhauled or tweaked, depending on how close the estimates are to the final data is delivered. Whatever lawmakers decide this session will likely become the foundation of what will be approved later this year.
Here’s a look at what’s in the Legislature’s plans and the next steps.
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The Big Changes
Many residents will be hard pressed to notice any major difference to their legislative districts in the Legislature’s new House and Senate plans. Others, meanwhile, are in for some big changes.
The two plans keep intact almost all of the 101 House districts and 48 Senate districts, although many will see their boundaries expand, shrink or altered.
To account for population growth in Oklahoma City, the Senate’s plan proposes to move Senate District 18, which currently covers parts of Cherokee, Mayes, Muskogee, Tulsa and Wagoner counties, to parts of Canadian and Oklahoma counties.
The House is also following suit in proposing to completely move House District 36, which covers parts of Tulsa and Osage counties, to eastern Oklahoma County along with the northwestern corner of Cleveland County.
The move, however, won’t affect any sitting lawmakers.
Sen. Kim David, R-Porter, who currently represents Senate District 18, and Rep. Sean Roberts, R-Hominy, who represents House District 36, are prevented from seeking re-election due to term limits.
Lawmakers up for re-election next year — or in 2024 for some senators — don’t need to worry about running in a new district. All non-term limited incumbents will remain in the district they currently represent.
Are the Maps Fair? Gerrymandered?
Expect discussions over whether the proposed maps are fair and whether they give an unfair advantage to either party, especially Republicans since they are leading the process.
Gerrymandering allegations are common in many states, and difficult to prove. Courts rarely reject redistricting plans due to political gerrymandering concerns alone.
During Thursday’s press conference announcing the maps, the GOP chairmen of the House and Senate redistricting committees said they believe they made improvements to the current maps.
Rep. Ryan Martinez, R-Edmond, added it’s impossible for them to purposely have gerrymandered districts since they did not take into account voter registration or other political data.
“This was about protecting community interests, making districts that were fair and making it understandable to the public without taking politics into consideration,” he said. “With that said, both parties were equally consulted and had chances to visit about this process.”
PlanScore, a nonpartisan non-profit group that analyzes the political and demographic leanings of maps nationwide, however, weighed in differently shortly after the lawmakers released maps.
Michal Migurski, the group’s executive director, tweeted that the partisan efficiency gap — a mathematical formula that seeks to detect evidence of partisan gerrymandering — went from bad to even worse, with the proposed House and Senate maps favoring Republicans more than before.
What Happens Next?
The House and Senate redistricting plans will next be brought up in committee through a redistricting bill that needs a majority to move it to the floor. If passed by the House and Senate, it will go to Gov. Kevin Stitt’s desk for his signature.
The new maps will take effect in 2022 and will impact the state legislative races (all House seats and half of the Senate) that year.
Lawmakers must finish congressional redistricting work when the final Census numbers are released. Officials have confirmed that Oklahoma’s population didn’t change enough to add or lose one of the state’s five congressional seats.
But changes are expected to account for population growth in parts of the state, including urban centers in Oklahoma City and Tulsa.
Why Are Lawmakers Deciding This?
Like most states, Oklahoma gives the Legislature the authority to rewrite the state’s legislative and congressional boundaries every 10 years after the census.
But a growing number of states — up to 14 now — have moved that power to independent commissions as a way to remove gerrymandering concerns or lawmakers writing the lines to serve their own interests.
A statewide group, called People Not Politicians, attempted to get a state question on the ballot for Oklahoma to join these states. But after facing lawsuits, pressure from Republican leaders and signature-collecting issues due to the COVID-19, the initiative was dropped.
What Happened During the Last Redistricting
When lawmakers went through the redistricting process in 2011, the new plans won at least some bipartisan support in both chambers.
Seven of the 16 Democrats in the Senate, including then-Sen. Sean Burrage, D-Claremore, vice-chair of the redistricting committee, voted for the plan.
The House redistricting plan was even less contentious.
It passed 93-3 in the House and 43-4 in the Senate, with most Democrats in both chambers backing the bill.
Former Sen. Jim Wilson, D-Wilson, sued Gov. Mary Fallin and legislative leaders shortly after the 2011 Senate Redistricting Act was passed and signed into law. He argued the GOP-controlled Senate intentionally drew boundaries to benefit the Republican Party.
The state Supreme Court rejected Wilson’s lawsuit, saying he didn’t provide “discernible and manageable standards” to prove political gerrymandering had occurred.