In 1960, one urban member of the Oklahoma Senate represented more than 346,000 people, nearly 15 percent of the state’s population at the time.
Meanwhile, one of his peers from a rural district represented only 13,125 people.
The two senators had equal legislative power, but absurdly unequal constituencies.
The history of legislative apportionment in Oklahoma is undemocratic and ugly. With the decennial rite of political redistribution approaching, there’s not much reason to think we’ll get it a lot better next time.
The turning point was supposed to have come in 1962, when a three-judge federal court panel found Oklahoma’s legislative apportionment system was “grossly and egregiously disproportionate and without rational basis or justification in law or fact.”
Up to that point, the Legislature had largely ignored the state constitution’s reapportionment provisions. As the state population moved into cities and suburbs, the state was left with obviously unbalanced legislative districts, a system that protected rural incumbents and the dominant Democratic Party.
The federal judges ordered the Legislature to redivide representation in accord with the U.S. Constitution’s promise of equal protection, a principle that was eventually worked into the Supreme Court’s one-person, one-vote ideal. Eventually, by fits and starts, the Legislature complied ... but not one bit more than it had to.
Today, legislative districts are redrawn every 10 years after the U.S. Census Bureau reports population trends, and, through the magic of computer technology, have largely equal numbers of constituents.
But that same computer magic has made the process of gerrymandering much simpler, a system that is obviously being used to favor rural incumbents and the dominant Republican Party.
Thus, Democratic-voting Cherokee County is split into three Senate districts, all held by Republicans, none living in Cherokee County.
And the suburbanites of Canadian County are split into six constituencies, all held by Republicans, one of whom lives in Weatherford, 24 miles west of Canadian County’s western border.
And Rep. Meloyde Blancett, D-Tulsa, inherited a sprawling district shaped like a house key, designed to conglomerate the midtown Democrats of east Maple Ridge, the Hispanic voters of Kendall Whittier and a handful of people north of 11th Street near Garnett Road.
Gerrymadering is alive and well and living in Oklahoma. It’s not all about parties, although party politics is constantly a factor. It’s at least equally about maintaining the status quo: A Legislature that is consistently rural, conservative, hostile to property taxes, suspicious of innovation and determined to protect incumbents. Just like it was in 1960.
We can do better. Other states have already figured it out.
University of Oklahoma political scientist Keith Gaddie has worked as an insider on gerrymandering cases in courts and in legislatures. He says a handful of principles should be used to build a better legislative apportionment system.
• First, take the process away from legislators. Their first instinct is to protect their own parochial and political interests.
• Next, put a nonpartisan panel of citizens in charge. Gaddie suggests a commission of at least 12 members (the size of a criminal court jury) and as many as 23 (a grand jury) aided by experts.
“The public can handle this,” Gaddie said. “The problem is the Legislature doesn’t think they can.”
• Insist that the commission work transparently. Gaddie describes the current system as “chef’s surprise,” where legislative districts are cooked up in secret and revealed near deadline on a silver platter. We need a kitchen with glass walls so everyone can see all the ingredients and who’s stirring the pot.
• Set a handful of good government standards for the commission to follow. Legislative districts should be equal in population, regular in shape, generally conform to established political units like cities and counties, compliant with federal laws protecting minority representation and historically consistent so that voters aren’t dramatically shifted from one district to another without legitimate cause.
• Finally, the state court system should act as the final arbiter to make sure the commission followed the standards.
Since 1907, what little progress Oklahoma has made toward an equitable system of distributing legislative power has been accomplished with legislators kicking and screaming in resistance. There’s no reason to think they would be the source of any further progress without the assertion of the ultimate authority, the people.