Op-eds

Written by the Metriarch Collaborative

Access, Understanding, and Redistricting

November 15, 2021 • By Tommy Yap, Metriarch Research & Policy Coordinator

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.

Commutation of Julius Jones

September 13, 2021 • By Jacqueline Blocker, Metriarch Data and Policy Director

Today is Phase II of Julius Jones’ commutation hearing. In fact, by the time you are reading this, a final decision about this man’s life likely already has been made. I woke up this morning thinking about Julius’ sister whom I have embraced while shedding tears feeling the pain of a sibling’s hurt. I also thought about Paul Howell’s family, especially his daughter. I cannot imagine how I would feel watching the world seemingly support the person you believe to have murdered your father. I thought about sitting across the table from Cece Davis-Jones as she shared why she stepped out on faith and chose to advocate for a man she did not know.

Six years have passed since the state’s last execution but now, amidst a global pandemic (yes, COVID still is around), our state seeks to execute seven individuals in five months. One of these individuals is Julius Jones. Why now? After a year and a half of watching COVID related death numbers continue to rise — 8,208 Oklahomans as of this moment — expediting the executions of seven individuals before year’s end feels tone deaf. And there is the lack of fiscal logic. An independent study determined that Oklahoma capital cases, on average, cost 3.2 times more than non-capital cases. I cannot help but think about how entanglement with the criminal industrial complex negatively impacts our communities. It is not just the individual behind the walls who feels crushed by the criminal system but the families and loved ones as well. Too often, this burden, this weight, is carried by women — mothers, sisters, partners and daughters. Even if it isn’t the woman who is detained, it more than often is a woman posting bail, adding funds to the commissary and trying to coordinate travel to prisons located far from home.

But we are about the facts, so here are just a few. Oklahoma is tied for second for the most executions since 1976; Oklahoma has executed the second highest number of women since 1976; and is the second highest incarcerator of women in the world, only after holding the number one spot for decades. We also lead the nation in high ACE scores and are in the top five for maternal morbidity. However, our state is in the bottom ten for safety and wellness.

Jones’ case feels like a no win situation. The victim’s loved ones need healing and closure and believe that executing Jones will bring them the peace they deserve. On the other side of the courtroom, Jones’ family has lived in anguish for nineteen years believing in the innocence of their son, brother, and loved one. I believe in restorative justice because it is another pathway for healing and redemption. Restorative justice allows space for decisions made based more on facts rather than by gut wrenching emotion.

I shudder at the fact that the state of Oklahoma may execute Jones only to later find out that he is innocent. I shudder more in cultural despair that the state seemingly is not deterred by the possibility that it may execute an innocent man and the underlying factors that clearly motivate its posture. 

Thank you for taking the time to read my morning musings.

Jacqueline