Unlike the fierce debate over Oklahoma’s congressional redistricting map, state lawmakers approved new legislative redistricting plans last month with a near-unanimous bipartisan vote that received little fanfare.

With a few exceptions and tweaks, the new state House and Senate plans largey mirror the general layout of old maps. The vast majority of Oklahomans will remain in the district they were in before. 

The new maps are unlikely to shift the power dynamics in the Legislature, where Republicans hold more than 80% of the seats.

Voter data shows something else is unlikely to change: Many legislative races will remain largely uncompetitive as the number of firmy Republican or Democratic districts — a number already high by national standards — grew slightly.  

According to Dave’s Redistricting App, a program used by the Legislature to solicit public feedback, 40 of the state’s 48 Senate districts will now lean Republican while four lean Democratic. Only four fall in the 45–55% competitive range. 

In the 101-member House, 78 will now lean Republican, nine will lean Democratic and 14 fall in the 45–55% competitive range in the House.

Altogether, that is one fewer district in the 45-55% competitive range than the old maps. 

Simone Leeper

“I think that that’s basically what we’re seeing with partisan gerrymandering across the entire country,” said Simone Leeper, a legal counsel for redistricting at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center. “What you have is maps that, in many cases, already had a partisan skew and now they’re being, you know, entrenched or made worse.”

Politicians are less accountable to their voters if they don’t have to face any opposition, Leeper said. Studies have shown that when voters don’t have a choice, they are more likely to grow apathetic and less likely to be engaged in the political process, she said. 

The issue isn’t limited to Republicans, Leeper said. In Democratic-led states, the politicians in charge of redistricting tend to seek to protect their incumbents. 

The net effect is fewer races with roughly an even split of Republicans and Democratic voters. 

In Oklahoma, the problem has grown worse. 

An Oklahoma Watch review of legislative filings since 2014 shows that of the 101 House seats — which are up for election every two years — 40 were decided without a vote in at least two of the last four election cycles.

In 2020, with 50 entirely uncontested state House or Senate district races — and 22 that were decided after the primary season (where only candidates from a single party filed for a seat) — nearly 60% of the 126 legislative seats up for election that year were decided before the general election 

That total is more than the combined number of uncontested legislative races during the 2018 and 2016 election cycles.

Oklahoma is not alone with this issue, but it is among the states that struggle the most with fielding contested races.

A recent report from Ballotpedia, a nonprofit organization that tracks elections, found that Oklahoma had the nation’s fifth-highest percentage of races without two challengers from major parties among the 44 states that had legislative elections on the ballot in 2020. 

Part of the issue is that Oklahoma is a deeply Republican state, with nearly 1.2 million registered Republicans and fewer than 700,000 registered Democrats, according to the state’s latest stats. As a result, Democrats have long struggled to field candidates in large parts of the state, particularly rural areas where the party divide favors Republicans even more.

Oklahoma Democratic Party Chairwoman Alicia Andrews blamed COVID-19 as one of the issues for not fielding as many legislative candidates as she would’ve liked in 2020. And although she said recruiting Democrats to run in all the 101 House races and 24 Senate races up each two years isn’t realistic, she said it’s still important to field as many candidates as they can.

“Not even in my greatest fantasy would we have 101 candidates and they all win,” she said. But it's not always winning. It's also about getting our message out and subtly and gradually changing the district so that it becomes more winnable for our side.”

The co-chairs of the Legislature’s redistricting panel — Rep. Ryan Martinez, R-Edmond; and Sen. Lonnie Paxton, R-Tuttle — did not respond to Oklahoma Watch’s request to comment. 

But Republican leaders stressed throughout last month’s special session that they did not take political affiliation into account when creating the maps. 

Instead, the legislative redistricting guidelines included looking at population, compactness, area, preservation of political subdivisions, historical precedents, economic and political interest and contiguous territory to decide how to redistrict the maps.

Leeper said although many state legislatures also say they don’t use political or voting data to draw the maps, politics are never far from their minds. 

“There are ways or proxy calculations even if you didn’t directly plug political data into your calculus,” she said. “We know, this area might be more Republican or Democratic. That’s something you just learn, especially if you are a politician.”

Lepper suggested that, as long as politicians are the ones drawing the maps, this will continue to be a problem. She said moving to an independent redistricting panel, something that Republicans in Oklahoma have strongly opposed, could be a solution. 

“I think the idea is that when you take this power away from politicians, it gets better because the individuals drawing the maps don't have that personal stake in entrenching their own power,” she said. “Obviously there's no system that is going to be perfect, but it's a lot better than when politicians are drawing the maps.”

Trevor Brown has been an Oklahoma Watch reporter since 2016. He covers politics, elections, health policies and government accountability issues. Call or text him at (630) 301-0589. Email him at tbrown@oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter at @tbrownokc

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