Those districts belong to us


I've been thinking about redistricting reform lately. (Redistricting fascinates me because it combines three of my favorite subjects -- politics, number-crunching, and maps!) With term limits kicking in, and the possibility of a change in control in the state legislature, this may be the optimal time to reform the system that has given us ridiculous gerrymanders which work against representative democracy.

So please indulge a bit of retroblogging -- here's an op-ed piece I wrote back in 1991, calling for reform of our state's redistricting process. From the May 31, 1991, Tulsa Tribune:

Those districts belong to us

Mike Bates



Page 9A of Editorial, Opinion

What's the difference between the state of Oklahoma and a representative democracy? In a representative democracy, constituents choose their representatives. In Oklahoma, "representatives" choose their constituents.

That riddle sums up the absurdity of this year's legislative redistricting exercise. Have you heard the way the state legislators talk about the new district maps? Redistricting is deemed a success at the state Capitol because every legislator (except for poor Grover Campbell) kept his seat.

His seat? Beg pardon? Whose seat is it? That possessive pronoun seems out of place. As I recall, this nation is founded on the idea that our leaders serve at the discretion of the people and not vice versa. Here in Oklahoma, however, legislators arrange districts for their own convenience.

Remember Sen. Finis Smith? In 1981, he decided he'd like to take some tag agency money, move out of the old neighborhood and into a deluxe high-rise apartment outside his district. This was easily arranged. The area from 21st to 56th Street, Peoria to the river, was added to a district stretching out to central Pawnee County. Rodger Randle managed a similar trick, adding his part of Maple Ridge to West Tulsa and the Sand Springs Line.

The trick was to extend a finger of a largely working class district into a posh neighborhood. This gave them the best of both worlds: They campaign for Joe Sixpack's vote, but they live next door to Pete and Penny Perrier. Fortunately for them, Joe Sixpack doesn't have the connections or money to mount a serious election challenge.

State Rep. Howard Cotner, chairman of the House Reapportionment Committee, has explained that it wasn't their fault that the new lines favor incumbents; if they didn't, the Legislature wouldn't pass the redistricting plan.

He has a point. The people entrusted with the redistricting process have no incentive to draw fair, compact, sensible districts. Neither are there any effective checks and balances. The Senate and House rubber-stamp each other's plans ("legislative courtesy," they call it). Republicans are too frightened of losing all influence at the Capitol to protest very loudly. The governor wouldn't dare veto the plans; he desperately needs legislative support to accomplish anything. Public outcry doesn't have time to develop in the few days between announcement of the plan and its passage.

Ideally, districts should be centered around regions, cities, neighborhoods, and other natural affiliations. You should be able to give a simple geographic name to each district: northern Broken Arrow, Brookside, metro Oklahoma City.

Of course, the current system also uses simple names to identify districts: Penny Williams' district, Russ Roach's district, Mickey Edwards' district (which the Wall Street Journal once called "Mickey's enchanted kingdom"). Try describing any of "their" districts in simple geographical terms. (There's that misplaced possessive pronoun again!)

It's time that Oklahomans assert their rightful claim to each legislative seat and take back the power of redistricting. Here are three steps in that direction:

1. Public hearings and approval by statewide vote. After a plan is passed by the Legislature, allow several months for public hearings and revisions, then put it to a statewide vote in November. We can surely spend a few more months on a plan we'll be stuck with for 10 years.

2. "Nested" districts to discourage gerrymandering. Minnesota does this; each Senate district contains exactly two House districts. Take it a step further and make the number of Senate districts an even multiple of the number of congressional districts. This time, each U.S. House district in Oklahoma would contain exactly eight Senate districts. With three incumbents at different levels dependent on the same set of lines, it will he hard to create a gerrymander that can make them all happy.

As a bonus, it will be easier for the average citizen to figure out who represents him at all three levels. When Penny Williams moved from the House to the Senate in 1988, many Maple Ridge residents (including a political science professor I know) were surprised to learn that although they lived in her House district they would not be able to vote for her for the Senate.

3. An independent reapportionment commission, made up of unsuccessful candidates. A legislator may have the support of 60 percent of the district; who will represent the interests of the disgruntled 40 percent? Who better than a disgruntled candidate?

Bring together all candidates who managed 25 percent or more of the vote in the most recent primary or general election. Let them take the Legislature's plan, hold hearings, and produce a final version to put before the people, their version vs. the Legislature's. The head-to-head competition would force them to produce something reasonable. In the process, some of them might even develop the skills needed to be effective legislators.

It's already too late to do anything about the 1991 redistricting. Let's start now to change things for next time. Those districts belong to us. We can and should reclaim them.

Michael Bates is a senior software engineer for Burtek.

A few days later, the Tribune replied in the editorial column:

How not to draw the lines
Page 6A of Editorial, Opinion

The Tulsa Election District Commission is urgently seeking the opinions of Tulsans on new City Council district boundaries before the commission proposes its final plan two weeks from today. Here's a suggestion: Don't draw the lines the
way Oklahoma's new congressional district boundaries were drawn.

In dividing the state six ways, the Legislature simply followed the wishes of the six incumbent congressmen: It ratified outlandish boundaries which assured each congressman a good shot at re-election. But that shouldn't be the basis for redistricting. As Mike Bates wrote in a Point of View column 10 days ago, "Those districts belong to us." Not to the congressmen, not to the legislators, not to the city councilors, but to the voters they are supposed to represent.

The job of the Tulsa Election District Commission should be to listen to any voters who have suggestions and then to draw districts that are compact and equal in population. If that means throwing two councilors into the same district or leaving some councilors in districts where they'll have difficulty getting re-elected, too bad. Mike Bates had it right.

I think that must be the last time the phrase "Mike Bates had it right" has been published in the editorial column of a Tulsa daily newspaper. How I miss the Tribune!

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on December 14, 2003 1:19 AM.

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