State lawmakers gathered in Tahlequah Thursday for a House redistricting town hall meeting, with the Legislature preparing to redraw boundaries for the 2022 election cycle through 2030.
State Reps. Jim Olsen, R-Roland, and Rusty Cornwell, R-Vinita, hosted the meeting at Northeastern State University, and were joined by several other members of the Oklahoma House of Representatives – including State Rep. Bob Ed Culver, R-Tahlequah – as well as the Oklahoma Senate.
Olsen said he wants the process to be fair so no portion of the electorate has greater representation than another by ensuring each district has equal populations; that no one is excluded or included based on political party or race; and that the result shows contiguous territories.
“It’s easier said than done, because it gets a little complicated,” said Olsen. “You solve one problem in one district, and then it affects not only a neighboring district, but potentially every district in the state. So when you consider 101 [House] districts, it becomes a little bit more complicated, but we’re going to do our best to get this done following the law – transparent and fair to everybody.”
The Legislature is required to redraw district boundaries every 10 years, following the federal Census. It is also in charge of redrawing Oklahoma’s congressional districts. The House and Senate work together to formulate their respective houses' districts.
Last year, a group filed a petition to form an independent redistricting committee that would have the duty of reshaping Oklahoma’s political divisions, but it was withdrawn after the Legislature promised an open and transparent process. T.W. Shannon, former Oklahoma speaker of the House, said in his presentation that the Senate is guided by a list of principles, while the House adopts its own guidelines every 10 years, and those are similar to the Senate’s.
“These principles have been recognized by state and federal courts as legitimate factors,” said Shannon. “Remember, the goal for any redistricting legislature is to make sure the courts aren’t deciding on that. While there will be discussion between parties, discussions between the different chambers, and even with the governor’s office about what the final legislation looks like, it’s been my experience that all elected officials can agree it’s probably not good for unelected judges or appointed committees to be making those decisions.”
The state won’t receive federal Census data until April, but preliminary numbers suggest each House district will grow by more than 2,000 residents. Each Senate district, meanwhile, is expected to increase by more than 4,000 people. According to projections, Oklahoma is not expected to lose or gain any congressional seats.
“That means if your population hasn’t grown in your district as it’s drawn now, you’re going to have to take in more property or more land to get that population density,” said State Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, R-Muskogee. “If you’ve grown more than that, then you’re going to have to shrink. You’ll see that probably 60 to 70 percent of the state – all of the rural areas – are going to actually have to increase in size and gain probably 2,000 to 4,000 people.”
The Legislature has until "sine die adjournment," May 28, to complete the schematics. Plans for congressional, House and Senate lines must go through the legislative process like all other measures, and is subject to a veto by the governor.
Lawmakers from both the House and Senate redistricting committees are asking for public input. At the end of the presentation on how redistricting works, attendees were given a chance to ask questions or express concerns. Over the years, Oklahomans have accused lawmakers of gerrymandering to favor one political party.
In August 2020, former State Rep. Matt Meredith, D-Tahlequah, discussed with the Daily Press the potential for an independent commission to redraw the lines, citing the lawsuit from late Sen. Jim Wilson, D-Tahlequah, against former Gov. Mary Fallin, claiming the process of redrawing district lines in 2011 was rigged to benefit the Republican Party. Meredith said Wilson did not even live in his own district for the last two years of his term.
An attendee at the Thursday meeting, Muskogee resident Jimmy Haley, brought up the last redrawing and Sen. Wilson’s claim that through gerrymandering, an unfair advantage for the GOP was established. He pointed out none of the lawmakers in attendance were Democrats; accused the last Senate redistricting committee of using a system from known gerrymander Thomas Hofeller to draw the lines; and asked legislators to revert them to what they were prior to 2011.
“The point here tonight is that I believe Oklahoma took advantage of Mr. Hofeller’s work and used his tools and techniques to gerrymander Oklahoma districts to where the Republicans could pick their own voters – in other words, to cheat,” said Haley. “… I venture to say you are in the process of continuing this cheating effort.”
Gripping several sheets of paper on which he had written his statements given to the lawmakers, Haley was asked by Shannon to keep his comments centered on this year’s process and not to malign the character of those involved.
“I’m not looking to malign the group,” said Haley. “I’m sharing my discomfort with the current situation. I don’t have the trust. It appears to be very heavily slighted toward Republicans, and I’m sorry, but you guys are pretty one-sided.”
“It certainly is a Republican majority,” Shannon admitted.
Check it out
A recording of the meeting is available at https://okhouse.gov/Video/Default.aspx. Anyone who was unable to attend the meeting may email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. All comments and public testimony from the town hall meeting will be shared with the committee.