POSTED ON JUNE 29, 2011:
Bad Odyssey at One Tech Center
Has Tulsa's democracy been compromised by a black box process?
Stephen Jay Gould, legendary biologist, raconteur and writer/TV star once opined that evolution is infinitely stranger than people understand.
Gould's most striking contribution suggests that most animals don't evolve smoothly ?? -- evolution isn't really a progressive process, anyway. He demonstrated that species change is often discontinuous -- "punctuated," he famously said -- by periods of fast, hyper-kinetic change followed by long seasons of little or no morphing.
Think about social and development history in Tulsa: sometimes things move at a glacial pace. At other times we cruise at warp speed. Consider the strong kinetics, the huge uptick in activity, traffic and event volume in Tulsa's downtown, a transition sparked by the BOK Center, ONEOK Field and the blossoming nightlife and festival culture in the Blue Dome District.
The big participation and surprisingly enduring interest in Tulsa's next step planning process (PLANiTULSA) is a second jump cut: an accelerant for Tulsa. The emerging efforts of Tulsa's John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation on racial healing in T-Town are another quantum leap we could spotlight.
Maps and Tulsa's Democracy
We live in a multispeed space -- like Dr. Gould's thesis.
Last week we witnessed another knock down/drag out between Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. and the City Council, this time over redistricting and new election maps -- work that fatefully frames our local democracy.
Once a decade, every territory in America, using fresh Census data, redraws the maps and voter lists that stipulate where people vote and how our nine city council districts will be drawn and populated.
This decade's redistricting is fueled by profound changes in Tulsa's settlement patterns: Tulsans have moved from the north and west to Midtown and to the south, but rightly accounting for the large group of folks who have moved since 2001 is only the start of the task.
A new district map also has to be responsive to residential dynamics and cotton to federal laws, common sense shape requirements and the master constitutional rule: one person, one vote. This means no district should contain far more or vastly fewer people that any other of Tulsa's nine voting districts. The Courts and the U.S. Department of Justice also require that each of Tulsa's new districts be compact and contiguous. Districts should have boundaries that, apart from major natural dividers (like the River), big highways, etc., should be more like rough squares or an oval than an outsized runway or a pretzel.
Finally, the federal Voting Rights Act requires districts drawn so that sizable pockets of ethnic and racial minorities have a shot at electing candidates of their choice??.
This doesn't mean rigging outcomes for minority candidates, but it does mean that districts should be drawn to provide these communities a chance at selecting candidates who will "feel their pain and prospects."
Oklahoma law requires that a three-member panel -- with someone from each of the two biggest political parties plus a Mayoral appointee -- craft the new districts with appropriate staff support (in this case from regional planning agency INCOG) and a guaranteed citizens challenge period once they complete their work. The three-member body met many times over the last five months to publicly discuss the map challenge, air disagreements among the panel's members and take suggestions and opinions from the public. Apparently, 83,000 Tulsans will be moved to new council "homes" as a consequence of the redistricting panel's effort.
The Controversy: Obscure But Heavy
In the last couple of weeks District 1 Councilor Jack Henderson and District 7's John Eagleton have voiced stringent critiques of the redistricting process and the super tight schedule flowing from the effort.
Eagleton's proposal from last week, which secured the support of all but two of his peers, sought to waylay immediate adoption of the new election map until the challenge period expired: a reasonable notion and one fully consistent with the spirit of the Tulsa's city charter.
Part of the Council's concern -- and one I share fully -- is the future of diversity on the Council. A bevy of voices, life experiences and lived economic circumstances should shape the cast that sits on our local governing body. District 3 Councilor Roscoe Turner last week quipped during a meeting on the map issue that "the devil was roaming the corridors at City Hall."
I think the Turner was a little over the top, but there really is a "D" problem -- but it's departing City Hall, not roaming around. Diversity is a key -- if a torrent of data from organizational psychology, empirical work on hot companies and the recent history of politics is any indication -- to responsive public management and an agile, highly effective operation. Some Council folks and a small set of veteran political observers now believe that the newly adopted map (put in place by a court order requested by the Mayor last week) makes it more difficult for candidates of color and those with modest income to prevail in several of the districts now enshrined in the new plan.
The evidence here is tentative but cries out for a rigorous round of statistical and computer simulation studies of the new election map -- work that will come now only if a successful legal challenge to the new districts occurs.
These concerns should be given great weight: outside of a robust legal challenge the new maps will define Tulsa elections until 2021. INCOG chief Richard Brierre -- a veteran of three decades of these efforts, and Barbara Gibson, a data and cartography specialist, ably assisted Tulsa's redistricting panel -- neither of these strong professionals are lightweights or anyone's puppets.
But we live in an age when savvy political operatives have access to the same data, the same software that these high level staffers have?? -- and redistricting isn't computational chemistry anyway. Just now, the "street" is full of talk about well-connected Republican operatives who might have provided stout, if informal, "nudging" advise to the two Republican members of the redistricting panel. Only a naive person would be surprised about this nexus -- it has happened in Tulsa before with Democratic redistricting mavens. It's also important to remember that while maps can be peerless visual tools they can also be used to mask significant, if subtle, changes in demographic detail or voter dynamics that are vastly important to election outcomes. All of this highlights why a data-driven review would have been hugely superior to the court-mandated outcome we witnessed last week.
Political lore and American election history is filled with instances of gerrymandering -- the systematic, opportunistic manipulation of election boundaries to secure outcomes for one political interest over others.
Interestingly gerrymandering tactics includes "packing": identifying all of the minority voters in an area and mandating them to vote in one district reducing their collective influence on elections elsewhere, and "cracking": busting up concentrations of minority voters and putting them into several districts thus diluting their influence.
Other gerrymandering tactics include "hijacking" -- using redistricting to eject existing elected folks -- pocketing their precincts and handing them off to favored elected officials, which compromises the targeted officials' prospects and his or her unwitting constituents.
We've Seen Better -- PLANiTULSA Sets A New Bar
Another problem with our new redistricting effort is born of high expectations. The redistricting thing comes on the heels of Tulsa's spectacularly successful comprehensive plan redo effort, an epic project that most people know as PLANiTULSA. The PLANiTULSA process is arguably the most transparent, large-scale transformational project in Tulsa's entire history. And here is the problem: we should have taken the time and made the intellectual and political effort to re-imagine our redistricting task: seen it clearly as one that needed to be fully transparent -- and as a hugely important effort.
The failure to do so is shared by many folks including people in Tulsa media: I include myself explicitly here -- I've certainly known about the redistricting process for many months and knew it was going to happen in accord with the 10-year schedule most political/public policy folks have burned in their heads.
So the media, elected leaders and our civic elites didn't really give it the attention required, and while it wouldn't have been possible to change the state mandated three person redistricting panel, it's easy to imagine an overlay process.
An overlay that spawned additional suggestions and options for the redistricting panel, just as thousands of Tulsans give the "official" planning bodies eyes and ears during the PLANiTULSA citizen sessions.
The Other Path: Radical Transparency and Crowd-Sourcing
In other communities -- California in particular -- a novel, inventive path was employed this year to do redistricting. In the Golden State, panels of Republicans, Democrats and independent voters were selected at random and placed on redistricting juries that did the work Tulsa's three-member panel was given.
It is important to remember that independent voters are showing explosive growth in America -- arguably they weren't represented at all in Tulsa's process. The citizen panels in California were given the task of doing redistricting in a common sense, logical way using software that's now widely available for doing the work and the same sort of high quality staff and consulting support so evident in the Tulsa's new comprehensive planning effort.
But there is a second dimension of what didn't happen in Tulsa. We could call it public crowd-sourcing. As many readers know viscerally, the mobile device revolution has produced software for spotting music, for picking entertainment, television and movies but also interestingly enough -- for securing public policy preferences from regular people.
All the "rules" and base maps, embedded in Tulsa's redistricting task, could have been baked into an inventive iPhone app that allowed people to create and then email, Facebook or tweet "plans" to each other, to the election panel and to city officials. When the results of this kind of app work are synthesized elected officials can get a deeper, more intimate conception of what people are actually thinking and wanting.
They would get -- we would all get -- the kind of insight that doesn't come from meetings where the loudest participants dominate the whole process, or from telephone surveys without the bandwidth needed to detect nuances of opinion or to spot the rare but useful "never heard" before idea.
Tulsa could've gone down a completely different path and its people like me in the media, our elected officials and some of you, dear readers, who didn't act to make it happen.
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