From statehood, the Oklahoma’s Legislature has been gerrymandered.
When Democrats ran the state Capitol, they refused to reapportion districts for decades, and when forced by the courts to do so, made sure the district boundaries worked to elect their nominees regardless of where people lived.
When Republicans took over, they did about the same thing.
The state House and Senate went red or blue according to partisan shifts and to protect incumbents of both parties, but one thing was universal throughout: The Oklahoma Legislature has always been rural.
Democrats first and Republicans later figured out that the way to stay in power was to artificially weaken the voting power of the two big metropolitan areas.
As a result, for 112 years, Oklahoma’s gerrymandering history has always worked against the interests of urban and suburban voters.
In 1960 — before court-pressured reapportionment took hold — one urban member of the Oklahoma Senate represented more than 346,000 people, nearly 15% of the state’s population at the time. Meanwhile, one of his peers from a rural district represented only 13,125 people.
Today, the disparities aren’t as stark, thanks to enforcement of the one-person, one-vote principle, but they’re still hidden in plain sight.
Computer-aided gerrymandering can draw up legislative lines that have exactly the same number of people in every district and crazy boundaries designed to keep the dominant party in power. Example: Cherokee County, a Democratic stronghold, is represented by three state senators, all Republicans, none living in Cherokee County.
But the big losers are the urban and suburban voters from the two big population centers.
The Oklahoma City and Tulsa metropolitan service areas represent 62% of the state’s population but only 54% of the state House and 54% of the Senate.
That eight-point gap represents 315,000 Oklahomans in each chamber.
Yukon, a town of 27,500 on the suburban Oklahoma City border with the rural West, ends up really overrepresented. The city has 0.7% of the state’s population, and three resident House members — all Republicans and two with improbably stretched district lines that head across county borders and into the outback.
My 8% figure may understate the situation because the two MSAs are very broad. The metropolitan areas are getting legislative credit for people who live in Mounds, Hominy and Arcadia, which might seem more rural than urban to some.
Whatever number you want to use, the skew is very real, and it has an impact. Important city issues don’t get considered and when they do get considered, they are defeated.
Wonder why Tulsa and Oklahoma City municipal governments are tied inextricably to sales taxes for their operational budgets when a diverse tax portfolio that included property taxes would make more sense?
Curious about why Tulsa Public Schools funding is caught in the pincers of a state aid formula and property tax laws that effectively prevents it from properly funding children’s educations?
Want to know why the state clung to Prohibition long after anyone thought it would work and its remnants survived into the 21st Century?
Perplexed by the state’s retributive justice system that doesn’t understand the nature of crime and punishment but manages to keep state’s rural prisons full?
Irritated by state policy that values fertilizer and pesticide over clean water?
The answer to all those questions is the same.
The arc of Oklahoma state history is a story of increasing urbanization. The people of Tulsa and Oklahoma City face unique problems that require modern solutions, but they don’t have a legislature desgined to help.
Earlier this month, People not Politicians filed an initiative petition that would put State Question 804 before Oklahoma voters. If it survives legal challenges, the petition would propose a state constitutional amendment creating a Citizens Independent Redistricting Commission to determine the boundaries of legislative and congressional districts every 10 years.
The commission would have nine members — three each from the two largest political parties and three unaffiliated with either. The commission’s selection process is complicated. Retired judges will do the initial vetting and select six commissioners at random from separate pools for the two largest parties and independent candidates. Those six will elect one additional commissioner from each of the three pools.
The petition tells the commissioners that the election districts they draw should prioritize communities of interest (such as tribal, economic and historic identities), racial and ethnic fairness, political fairness, geographic integrity of political subdivisions and compactness.
The petition is complex, and I’m not ready to make a final call on it. It deserves some public scrutiny and (undoubtedly) a court review. But the five principles for redistricting, if properly applied, would certainly produce a Legislature that better reflects the state by better representing its population centers.