It is almost redistricting time in Oklahoma. Last year the United States conducted the census. The census matters politically because the population of the State of Oklahoma compared to the population of other states determine how many representatives we send to the U.S. House of Representatives. Currently Oklahoma has five seats in the House.
The census data has not yet become available, and the United States Census Bureau has announced that official census data will not be available until September given the difficulties that occurred with conducting a national count of the United States during a global pandemic. Once the data arrives, Oklahoma is going to have to redraw the maps and redraw them fast. The Oklahoma Constitution requires that the new maps be ready by the 2022 Primary Elections in June. Our state legislators are aware of the time crunch. Senate President Pro Tem Greg Trent has already told lawmakers that there will be a special session of the Legislature in the fall to do the redistricting.
It is easy to think that redistricting is no big deal in Oklahoma this year. The website 270toWin put 2019 population estimates into a model and predicted that the number of seats in Oklahoma will stay the same. We had five seats after 2010 and we should hold that number after 2020. So why do we need to redraw our lines? The Founding Fathers intended that each district in the House of Representatives covers a roughly equal number of people. In Oklahoma what has happened over the past decade is that the population has gravitated toward the larger cities. Urban areas like Norman, the OKC Metro and Tulsa gained population while many of the rural areas of Oklahoma lost population. So, in order to balance the population out between districts the lines are going to have to be redrawn to reflect the movement of people within our state.
While Oklahoma is a deep red state, there is one district that will be interesting to watch from a political science perspective: the Oklahoma 5th Congressional District. The OK-5 covers Oklahoma City and then goes east on I-40 and swings down to pick up Shawnee and Seminole. The reason that the OK-5 is going to be so interesting during this time is that it is the only one of our congressional districts that is a toss-up. In 2018 the OK-5 elected a Democrat, Kendra Horn, to represent it in Congress. In 2020 the Republican Stephanie Bice was able to win the seat back for the Republican Party, but she did so in a much closer election than the rest of Oklahoma’s congressional Republicans. Oklahoma County was also the only county in the state where Donald Trump failed to pick up at least 50 percent of the vote.
The OK-5 could be in serious jeopardy of changing significantly over the next year. While the Oklahoma Legislature has promised a transparent redistricting process, there is an interesting balance of power to walk if you are Republicans in the Legislature. As Oklahoma County trends from red to purple there is going to be a temptation to follow what happened to places like Indianapolis and Austin; cut bluer urban citys up into multiple districts so they can more easily maintain power.
Drawing district lines to benefit a specific political party is called gerrymandering. Gerrymandering has led to some truly bizarre looking congressional districts over time. My favorite example of this was a district in Pennsylvania which looked like Goofy kicking Donald Duck and was so egregious that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional.
To the Oklahoma Legislature’s credit, the congressional districts (I am not discussing the state Legislature districts here … that could be its own column) are low on the gerrymandering scale. But this time could be different. As we have seen in the past few elections there is a growing political divide between the urban and rural parts of the state. State Question 802 was an example of this phenomena. As the Legislature prepares for the challenge of redistricting, I am watching what happens in the OKC Metro. If it stays relatively intact, Oklahoma will have something unique in the age of partisan gerrymandering, a congressional district that is legitimately competitive.
David Searcy has degrees in political science.