By: Parker Klingenberg
The Oklahoman citizen group People Not Politicians, backed by the Women Voters of Oklahoma, led the charge earlier this year to get State Question 804, also known as the Independent Redistricting Commission Initiative, on the ballot for Oklahomans voting on November 3, 2020. State Question 804 would have laid out a new framework for drawing both state and federal district lines, complying with both federal law and numerous other criteria. These lines would be drawn not by the state legislature like in the past, however, but would be drawn by a newly created Independent Redistricting Commission consisting of three members of the majority party, three members of the minority parties, and three non-party affiliated members. State Question 804 will not be on the ballot, however. The Oklahoma Supreme Court blocked it based on the grounds that the “gist,” or the summary that would appear to citizens during the process of gathering the required signatures to get on the ballot, was not “sufficiently informative to reveal its design and purpose.” Specifically, the gist failed to properly inform citizens that the ballot initiative was designed to stop partisan gerrymandering, and how the proposed committee would do so. While Oklahomans were not able to decide in November whether they want to vote for or against this proposal, it still raises interesting issues about Oklahoma’s future.
The Republican groups who opposed the State Question attacked it based on grounds other than the gist: first, they claimed it would violate the state’s “single-subject” rule, which requires that individual ballot initiatives and legislation may only deal with one main issue, and secondly, that it would violate their First Amendment right to participate in political processes. The Oklahoma Supreme Court, however, rejected both of these arguments, leading to the conclusion that State Question 804 is only temporarily out of the picture; with a proper gist to inform the signatories of measure, the Independent Redistricting Commission Initiative could rise again. In fact, mere days after the decision, People Not Politicians did refile the petition.
Opponents of State Question 804 were often not shy about why they did not like the proposal. Senate Pro Tempore Greg Treat said that the measure was “nothing more than a power grab by out-of-state liberal activists,” and David McLain, the head of the Oklahoma Republican Party, wrote that it would lead to “activist judges  contorting districts into positions that accompany the ‘correct’ numbers of urban, liberal, LGBTQ+, or whatever other left-leaning affiliation that might benefit Democrats.” The opponents are certainly correct in one regard, which is that Oklahoma, at least in the recent history, has not had a large issue with gerrymandering. In 2010, for example, all challenges to the state Senate boundaries were dismissed by the courts, nor were there any successful challenges to the federal lines. There are many potential reasons Oklahoma has not seen the gerrymandering battle that other states have, and while not dismissing the Oklahoman Republican Party’s concern for fair election lines, I think the more interesting possible reason is that they simply never needed to risk gerrymandering. Oklahoma has five seats in the House of Representatives, and in 2016, the closest margin of victory was 20.3%, for District Five, encompassing most of the capital Oklahoma City, and the largest margin was 100%, for a candidate running unopposed. District Five had not seen a Democratic representative for forty-four years before 2018, when Kendra Horn was elected. Furthermore, the Republican Party absolutely dominates both the state Senate and House, with supermajorities of 38-9 and 77-23, respectively.
While State Question 804 was not up for voting in November, with the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling that it would be constitutional, and the changing landscape of Oklahoman politics possibly striking a touch of fear in the majority and a touch of hope in the minority, the issue of gerrymandering may easily exacerbate in Oklahoma. I expect to see a similar initiative to State Question 804 in time for 2022. If the citizen groups backing these types of reforms can get enough to support to make it on the ballot, while I doubt the Republican-dominated state will give up their power to draw districting lines so easily or so soon, the groundwork could begin to be lain for a gerrymandering reform movement in Oklahoma.