OKLAHOMA CITY — It’s time to stop lawmakers from manipulating legislative voting districts in an attempt to guarantee victories at the ballot box, a group of Oklahomans said Monday.
Andy Moore, executive director of People Not Politicians, said his coalition wants voters to revamp a rule that dates back to statehood. The law in question deals with the fabric of democracy — redrawing both state and congressional voting districts after the U.S. Census population count, which occurs every decade.
“Right now, politicians draw lines for their own gain and to get re-elected,” he said. “And we don’t know how they do it. They do it behind closed doors and in a dark room, and this would allow us, the public, to see how those lines are drawn.”
The group plans to start gathering signatures as early as next month for a ballot initiative to overhaul the current redistricting process.
The plan would create a nine-member citizen panel comprised of three people from the state’s largest party, three from the next largest and three who are affiliated with neither party.
“I joke it’s a complicated solution to a simple problem,” Moore said. “The problem is gerrymandering and politicians picking their own voters. The solution is establishing an independent commission in a way that has multiple firewalls between politicians and the commission itself.”
If supporters can gather about 178,000 signatures, the measure would appear on a 2020 ballot.
Moore said similar legislation crops up about every decade, but lawmakers never approve it.
“It’s clear that the Legislature has no interest in governing themselves about these things, and it’s up to the people,” he said.
In 2020, Oklahomans will participate in the nationwide census count. By spring of 2021, the state should receive its census data. If the law remains unchanged, lawmakers will begin to use that as the foundation to reset legislative districts, Moore said.
Moore said the Legislature’s last redistricting effort resulted in “squirrely” looking voting districts.
“They seems like a bowl of spaghetti,” he said.
In a statement, House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, said Oklahomans have not had problems with redistricting. The state has not lost a lawsuit over the issue, he said.
“The convoluted, 14-page process the petitioners want makes the system more complicated and less accountable to voters,” McCall said. “The existing process is much simpler and more accountable because the buck stops with the legislators who the voters can keep or replace depending on how they feel about their work. The petition is unnecessary because the people can already challenge redistricting plans under our Constitution, and ultimately the people maintain their accountability over the process through their election or replacement of their legislators.”
The state House will again use a transparent redistricting process that won bipartisan praise a decade ago and involved statewide input, he said.
“Our process works,” McCall said. “It is based on the numbers, the law and the expertise of the people in the districts.”
He said Oklahomans deserve to know if out-of-state interests are paying for this in an effort to try to “rewrite the rules for political outcomes they haven’t been able to get through the ballot box.”
“Oklahomans know Oklahoma,” McCall said. “From president all the way down the ballot, Oklahoma has trended the way it has for decades because of voter preference and not because of how districts are drawn.”
Still, a growing number of states are shifting to citizen-led redistricting commissions, said Jan Largent, president of the League of Women Voters of Oklahoma. The nonpartisan group is involved in Oklahoma’s ballot effort.
Largent, of Stillwater, said 14 states already have some sort of citizen-led redistricting commission and eight are looking at doing something similar. She said such efforts are happening in both Republican- and Democrat-controlled states.
“Every vote should count and in a politically gerrymandered district not every vote counts,” she said. “Voters should choose their representatives instead of politicians choosing their voters to keep themselves in power. Partisan gerrymandering is wrong whether in a red state or a blue state, and it happens in both.”
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.