By Carmen Forman
One of the most important issues Oklahoma lawmakers face this year is redrawing the state’s congressional and legislative districts for the next decade.
But it’s likely the redistricting process won’t be complete during the regular legislative session that runs from February through May.
Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, predicted it could take months for Oklahoma to receive complete U.S. Census data that will be used to draw districts.
“I can’t imagine that we’re going to be able to get it completed by the end of this session, which means it’s likely that we’ll end up in a special session sometime this year,” she said.
Her comments came before the U.S. Census Bureau announced Friday that redistricting data would be delivered to states by Sept. 30 — a date that has been pushed back multiple times from the original planned delivery deadline of March 31. The delay corresponds to COVID-19-related challenges in Census Bureau data collection.
From the beginning, lawmakers knew this process would be fluid and timelines could change, said Rep. Ryan Martinez, R-Edmond, chairman of the House State and Federal Redistricting Committee.
“We’re kind of at the mercy of the U.S. Census Bureau, along with every other state,” he said. “This has been an exceptionally challenging year with COVID and the change of administration.”
The new district maps will be used starting in 2022 when all Oklahoma House seats and half of the state Senate will be up for election. U.S. Sen. James Lankford will also be up for reelection in 2022, and there will be elections in all five of the state’s congressional districts.
Oklahoma’s redistricting leaders don’t think the state has gained enough population in the past decade to gain a sixth congressional seat.
State lawmakers recently held a series of 20 town halls across the state and on virtual platforms to solicit public comments and respond to questions about the redistricting process.
And they want the public to remain involved throughout the process.
“I’m going to do everything we can to make sure the process is open, make sure the process is transparent and make sure that people have the opportunity to give their input,” said Sen. Lonnie Paxton, R-Tuttle, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Redistricting.
The public will be able to submit maps of what they think Oklahoma’s legislative and congressional districts should look like, he said
The timeline on when the public can submit maps depends on when the federal government delivers Census data to states.
The sooner the state gets that data, the more time Oklahomans will have to draw their own maps. If the data comes later than expected, the timeline for public map submissions might shrink, Paxton said.
Oklahoma’s redistricting leaders have also encouraged the public to remain engaged through their local lawmakers.
If Oklahomans have questions or concerns about redistricting, they should reach out to their specific representative or senator because all legislators will play a role in the process, Martinez said.
Oklahomans can also email questions to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Martinez is hopeful that a transparent redistricting process can eliminate any concerns about lawmakers acting in their own best interest throughout the process.
“We don’t use any political data,” he said. “I think that
some people have a misinterpretation of exactly how this happens. We don’t know how you’re registered or how many people from one party or another live somewhere. We look at Census data, which doesn’t include those things.”
Nuts and bolts of redistricting
Oklahoma has seen nominal population growth of just over 5% in the past decade, but the redistricting process will have to take into account a trend of population loss in rural areas and growth in urban areas.
In other words, the number of residents in Oklahoma’s heavily Republican rural areas is shrinking as Democratic-leaning metro areas like Oklahoma City and Tulsa gain population. That means the number of legislative districts in urban and suburban areas could grow through the redistricting process.
“What you will see is a massive population shift into urban and suburban areas,” Martinez said. “Now, that’s not just an Oklahoma issue, that is a national issue that we’re all pretty aware of.”
Unlike the 2011 redistricting process, the Oklahoma House and Senate will use the same software to draw district maps.
Both chambers are using Maptitude for Redistricting, and a representative from Caliper Corporation gave a virtual demonstration of the software in a December virtual meeting that was open to the public.
The chambers are trying to work in collaboration throughout the process to make it easier for lawmakers and the public, Paxton said.
“This year, we're using the same software,” he said. “Everything we're doing, we're doing in lockstep, trying to make sure that we're working together.”
House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, said the current redistricting process has gone smoothly so far, but she staunchly opposes state lawmakers drawing legislative districts. Redistricting should be done by an independent commission devoid of political motivations, she said.
A proposed state question that would have asked voters to create an independent redistricting commission in Oklahoma was withdrawn in September. But Andy Moore, the executive director of People Not Politicians, vowed to refile the proposed question if legislators don’t follow through on their promises to keep the redistricting process open and transparent.
“Having been here in 2011 with the redistricting process then, it has seems to be a more open and transparent process this time, but with the caveat that I still don't think that legislators should be drawing their own districts,” Virgin said.