POSTED ON MARCH 31, 2010:
Beware of the Gerrymanders
Census time often breeds some strange critters with redistricting stirring the waters
I completed my U.S. Census form last week and dropped it in the return mail.
Afterwards, black helicopters did not suddenly appear over my house. UN tanks did not rumble down my street. And jack-booted federal agents did not take a battering ram to my front door.
I've heard some crazier-than-usual paranoia in recent months about the "government intrusion" known as the Census, especially as the right-wing noise machine came unhinged over health care reform, lashing out at all things federal.
I could spend an entire column ranting about the McCarthy-esque malarkey we've heard -- and, sadly, the embrace of it by far too many Republican leaders who are gambling it's a way to reclaim political power in Washington.
Filling out the Census questionnaire got me thinking about something else instead -- something real, something that will have a profound impact on our daily lives and our state government during the next decade.
It's the decennial exercise called "redistricting," where state lawmakers use the latest Census data to redraw the state's five congressional and 149 legislative (101 House and 48 Senate) districts, so each are composed of a nearly equal number of residents.
Redistricting is often dismissed as an arcane, inside-the-marbled-halls game in which the two major parties joust to expand their political power and neuter the opposition. True, it frequently is arcane and driven by political power. But redistricting also shapes the kind of representation you get at the state Capitol for 10 years -- especially how responsive your legislator feels he or she needs to be to your concerns.
In theory, legislative and congressional districts are to be as compact as possible and take into account communities of interest. For example, a 300-mile-long, 15-mile-wide district stretching from Woodward to Broken Bow wouldn't make much sense. The two towns are six hours apart by car. Woodward is a hub of wheat and ranching, Broken Bow timber and tourism.
In practice, though, legislative and congressional districts often are drawn quite creatively in order to ensure the majority party's incumbents are protected and to make the opposition party's officeholders more vulnerable to defeat.
You see, most incumbents -- unless they do something incredibly stupid -- have about a 9-in-10 chance of winning re-election. They've captured the seat once, people know them, special interest money is more likely to flow to their campaign coffers, they command media attention ... the list of advantages is long and they are significant.
And it's only human nature that the safer lawmakers feel, the less worried they are about responding to the demands of their constituents.
In fact, some clearly begin to demonstrate a primary interest in those who write the checks for their campaigns because large election war chests scare off a lot of potential challengers.
What makes the 2010 Census redistricting particularly interesting is that this marks the first time the GOP has held a majority in both houses of the Oklahoma Legislature. Republicans will draw the boundaries for legislative and congressional districts for the next decade.
The GOP owns an overwhelming 62-39 seat edge in the House, but the margin is much closer in the Senate, 26-22.
Any plan, of course, will have to be approved by Gov. Brad Henry, giving the Democrats a possible ace-in-the-hole in limiting the partisan bloodshed.
The problem is, Henry's never been regarded as particularly partisan, and he might not be willing to play hardball with Republicans over redistricting, since he's in the final year of the maximum two-terms he can serve as the state's chief executive.
Neither House Speaker Chris Benge nor Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, both of whom are term-limited as well, have appointed members to a redistricting committee nor set a timetable to draw the new maps. Benge, in fact, has indicated he is punting the issue of timing to Speaker-designate Kris Steele, a Shawnee Republican.
The state lost a congressional seat 10 years ago. Even though the state's population increased, it didn't climb nearly as much as other Sun Belt and western states. Oklahoma isn't expected to lose a seat this time, but the district lines will have to be revamped because of intrastate migration patterns.
What's happening is the state's metro areas are growing while the rural counties -- particularly in the western half of the state -- remain in a decades-long decline, another unmistakable sign that family farms are disappearing or can only support one generation at a time.
Another significant trend: The state's rural areas, once solidly blue and reliably Democratic, are rapidly becoming Republican strongholds. Indeed, most of the seats vacated by legislative Democrats in recent years, particularly in western Oklahoma, are filled with Republicans -- Altus Sen. Mike Schulz and Cordell Rep. Todd Russ are two prime examples.
The next round of redistricting will likely make rural Democratic legislators an even more endangered species. Map-drawers have to figure out ways to carve out more legislative seats in urban areas. The easiest way is to consolidate rural seats, effectively eliminating districts of term-limited Democrats.
Two seats already believed to be on the chopping block: Rep. Paul Roan's District 20 that includes parts of Atoka, Bryan, Coal, Johnston and Pontotoc counties in southern Oklahoma, and Rep. Purcy Walker's District 60 that stretches across parts of Beckham, Ellis, Greer, Harmon and Roger Mills counties in western Oklahoma. Both Roan and Walker are term-limited in 2012, the year the new redistricting maps will take effect.
At first glance, the rural Republican tide would seem to assure the GOP is positioned as the state's dominant party for decades to come. But there is a silver lining for Democrats: The growth in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, much of it younger in age and more diverse ethnically and racially, is turning some once solidly red Republican areas purple, capable of electing either Republicans or Democrats. Keep an eye, for example, on what happens to GOP Rep. Dan Sullivan's district, bounded roughly by 21st Street, Lewis Avenue, 71st Street and the Arkansas River.
The incumbent protection act known as legislative redistricting has so riled voters in some states that they've taken the map-drawing power away from the Legislature and given it to independent bodies.
California voters, for example, created a 14-member Citizens Redistricting Commission that for the first time this year will carve out the 120 legislative and four Board of Equalization districts. It remains to be seen how well it works, but some Californians are so enthusiastic about its potential that they are eyeing another statewide vote -- this time to give the citizens' panel the authority to redraw the state's congressional lines, as well.
There's no similarly organized movement in Oklahoma, so far, but Democrats, now in the minority, already are publicly floating the idea of creating an independent, bipartisan commission.
Given the suspicion with which Oklahomans generally regard their government, it wouldn't be surprising if an initiative petition seeks to take the self-interested politicians out of the process -- especially if the Republicans' first bite at the redistricting apple becomes a bitter exercise, full of drama.
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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