Access, understanding, and redistricting

Tommy Yap, MPA

Tommy Yap, MPA

Legislative and Policy Analyst, Metriarch

Let’s talk about “access.” The word conveys positivity and improvement. Nonprofits love this word. I personally have found myself scouring for synonyms because I had overused it in a report. It’s just that good!

However, let’s be real. “Access” is not a metric. As beloved as it is, the definition depends entirely on who is deploying it–good or bad.

Recently, the Oklahoma Legislature released the proposed congressional (Federal level) district maps. When they first announced this undertaking, they proudly proclaimed that this would be an accessible operation and the public would have overwhelming access to the process. From a town hall roadshow to DIY maps to online documents, they wanted to hear from you–us!

Their epiphany of transparency–ahem, access–came at the heels of increasingly vocal groups calling for redistricting reform, including a possible state question. Why? Under the current redistricting process in Oklahoma, representatives choose who will vote for them, despite all of us being told it’s the other way around.

Representatives choosing who they represent is not new. It’s historically entrenched in U.S. governing. Gerrymandering, a term used to describe drawing districts to influence election outcomes, first popped into the political world in 1812. 1812! Typically, when “gerrymandering” makes its way into a headline, it’s not for a good reason. It’s most likely associated with an accusation that the party in power has proposed districts to increase their win rate. This practice is called partisan gerrymandering.

Partisan gerrymandering is done through two methods: packing and cracking. Packing is when voters from one party are squeezed into one district, removing their ability to sway the surrounding districts’ election results. Cracking, however, is the opposite. Voters from a party are split into surrounding districts to dilute their vote, making them a minority in each of those districts, so their voices won’t affect election outcomes.

As the committee commenced their dog and pony show, they insisted they were increasing access. As a super nerd, I took them up on their offer and went to the town halls they had prepared in Tulsa.

First things first, I would argue that you had to be in the right circles to even know these town halls were happening and when they would be in a city near you. They started their tour in December 2020 and announced they would only host in-person, indoor events despite COVID going strong in Oklahoma. Non-interactive live streams were offered as virtual alternatives, but due to pressure, the committee later added fully interactive virtual town halls to their schedule.

At the in-person, indoor sessions I attended, I was at negligible risk for COVID. Transmission requires people, and the sessions were lacking in that department. Attendees could practice impeccable social distancing because there were only twelve of us in the college lecture hall. Of those twelve, only three were not associated with the Legislature.

The town hall content and format gave me the impression that they were designed for people who already understood redistricting, its impact, and the identifiable impact on their community. It was a brief overview of the process, some numbers, the maps, and then BAM! completely unstructured public input. If you didn’t already have a concern in mind going in, they did not create a space that would have cultivated you coming up with one.

As Schoolhouse Rock said, “knowledge is power.” Sure, the town halls increased access to the redistricting process. But I also have access to my car manual, but that doesn’t mean I understand replacing my headlight.

Redistricting advocates were not quiet during this time. Whether online or in-person, the committee was frequently badgered about partisan gerrymandering. Defensively, the committee repeated that party affiliation data was absolutely not being taken into account when drawing the maps and went as far as asserting that they couldn’t look at that information anyway because it wasn’t in their software.

Skepticism was plentiful and warranted. The new map wreaks of partisan influence, and the source of the smell is Oklahoma’s congressional district 5 (CD-5). The proposal continues the historical trend to crack the city and completely doubles down. For some background, CD-5 elected Kendra Horn, a Democrat, to Congress in 2018. As it’s drawn now, CD-5 isn’t a blue district; it’s fairly red-purple. However, the Legislature seemingly is determined to ensure that former-Rep. Horn’s victory is not repeated for at least the next ten years.

Although not a federal requirement, a best practice for drawing districts is keeping like-minded communities with similar representational needs together. Case in point, OKC. A robust case can be made that the residents of OKC have similar interests, and consolidated representation would be beneficial. In fact, Oklahoma County has a sizable enough population to be one district.

But that’s not the opinion of the Oklahoma Legislature. According to their maps, the residents of OKC’s downtown Plaza District have more in common with the residents of Guymon, 260 miles away, than neighbors they may see at the grocery store. The proposed map surgically carves out Democrat-leaning areas of the city and places those voters into Republican saturated districts to dilute their ability to influence future elections. Textbook cracking.

Washington D.C. allocates millions of dollars every year to Oklahoma alone, from water infrastructure to highways. The Oklahoma Legislature’s proposed congressional map allows them to predetermine the outcomes of elections that we, the people, are supposed to be deciding. Whether Republican or Democrat, political gerrymandering enables state legislatures to determine how national policy is decided. Both parties deploy political gerrymandering tactics; it’s just a matter of who is in power when a new decade begins.

In closing, partisan gerrymandering has evolved into a practice reminiscent of the U.S. Senate before the 17th Amendment. The 17th Amendment eliminated the practice of state legislatures appointing U.S. Senators and shifted that ability to the state’s residents. The Oklahoma Legislature, and state legislatures across the country, are actively deciding which party will represent citizens. They can no longer decide who will be in the Senate, but they are definitely deciding who will be in the House.

Share this page:

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

You might also like