A look at redistricting in Oklahoma (Capitol Update)

Recently, an initiative petition to create an independent, bipartisan redistricting commission to redraw legislative and congressional districts in Oklahoma was filed by a group called “People Not Politicians.” The proposal would be on the ballot next year as SQ 804 and beginning after the 2020 census, the commission would do the redistricting now done by the Legislature. Seven states – Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Jersey, and Washington – already have such commissions. Another six – Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Missouri, Ohio, and Pennsylvania – have independent commissions to redistrict their state legislatures only.

Last week, opponents filed a challenge to the petition. However, in a 2015 Arizona case testing whether such commissions are constitutional, the U.S. Supreme Court approved the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission. Unless the U.S. Supreme Court reverses the Arizona decision, the challenge here will likely fail. Interestingly, Chief Justice John Roberts dissented from that decision, along with the other more conservative justices.

Redistricting in Oklahoma has an interesting history. Like many states, Oklahoma ignored regular redistricting for many years until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1964 that electoral districts of state legislatures must be roughly equal in population, applying the principle of one person, one vote. I was told that in the early 1960s Sen. George Miskovsky represented the entirety of Oklahoma County, which was several times the population of most other Senatorial districts.

When the state finally began redistricting every 10 years after the census, it has been done by the Legislature as currently required by the state constitution. “Gerrymandering” has been an accepted fact in most states as well as in Oklahoma. I was there for one round of redistricting, and it was pretty much an “incumbent protection” exercise. Realistically, this is human nature. Given the opportunity to draw lines favorable to one’s own re-election, who would not do so? It was considered the spoils of victory that most people grumbled about but accepted.

But nowadays, with computers and sophisticated pinpoint digital analysis, the advantage to those in control is much greater. Legislative and congressional districts are so non-competitive from a partisan perspective that most legislators fear only a primary opponent, which tends to change their political calculus and thus public policy. It will be interesting to see if the priority of the majority of Oklahomans is to keep the majority party in control or to eliminate the partisan advantage in redistricting.


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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