The 2018 midterm elections in Oklahoma confirmed hardened geographic divisions. The state's two largest metro areas favored Democrats, while rural Oklahoma voted overwhelmingly Republican. But rural counties are losing population, overall demographics are changing and redistricting is on the horizon.
University of Oklahoma political scientist Keith Gaddie gives his take on the future of the state's politics in this episode of Capitol Insider.
Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider, your weekly look inside Oklahoma politics and policy. I'm Dick Pryor with eCapitol News Director Shawn Ashley. Our guest is University of Oklahoma political scientist Keith Gaddie. Welcome, Keith.
Keith Gaddie: It's good to be here, Dick, Shawn.
Pryor: The 2018 election saw statewide offices, including governor, on the ballot in Oklahoma. It was a midterm election nationally, and the rural urban split is becoming more and more pronounced nationally and here in Oklahoma.
Gaddie: Yeah, and, you know, if you look, it's a profound cultural and economic division. Oklahoma historically had an urban rural division of politics. Well what happened is the urban centers were about 10 to 15 points more Republican than the rest of the state. That's reversed. And a lot of that...We want to ascribe it to increased racial diversity in the state because the young electorate and young Oklahomans are about 50 percent white 50 percent non-Anglo, white. But it really it's more about a change in the values of the suburbs, as well. Even for older Oklahomans, middle age Oklahomans living in metro Oklahoma City, they've gravitated away from the Republican Party.
Shawn Ashley: When you look at rural urban split in the state legislature, you have 39 senators, for example, representing rural counties and about 1 million people. There are nine senators in your urban counties who represent about 960,000 people. That's a big disparity. How does that work?
Gaddie: Well what happens is districts have got to be equal based upon population, OK? All districts have to be roughly of the same population inside the legislature, but what happens is you only draw those districts right after the census and then they're in place for 10 years and over time population disparities grow up. So, inevitably, when we reapportion the districts and draw new lines those districts are going to have to come into the suburbs and into the city.
Pryor: Based on those numbers that Shawn mentioned, is rural Oklahoma actually overrepresented now?
Gaddie: It probably is. And let's remember we're headed to a situation right now where the tops the six biggest counties in the state are going to have about 60 percent of the population in the near future.
Ashley: You mentioned stretching these districts out. We've already seen some of them grow quite large. Some of them in the next redistricting will probably be manipulated about a bit. Doesn't that make it difficult for the senators and representatives of those districts to properly do their job? With the limited resources they have, the limited time they have when a district can almost stretch from one border to the other...
Gaddie: Yeah, I mean, you know, the design of the district who's going to dictate where a representative has to go in it, and the good news is in Oklahoma we have relatively small legislative districts by population. State House seats have got roughly 40,000 people in them. And more compact districts do make that easier. But, you know, part of what we're going to see going forward is a discussion about maybe we ought to have some rules and some basic criteria so the districts look rational rather than looking like something that Jackson Pollock threw up on a canvas.
Pryor: The 2020 Census is coming up and following that will be redistricting. How is that typically done?
Gaddie: Well typically how redistricting is done is the Census Bureau will issue census data to the states, and the legislature will draw state legislative and congressional maps so that each district has the equal population to every other district in the state for that chamber. And what usually happens is one party is in control of the process and they tend to advantage themselves. When you've got divided control you get a more fair map or you take care of all the incumbents. Even though we have the capability to do things like run a hundred thousand scenarios of what a map might look like. You don't do that, OK? It's about political knowledge. It's about political expertise. Because no politician, including the experts that draw the maps, are going to put this thing on autopilot and put the hands of the computer to decide what's best, right? A computer can compose you a perfect song that will have no heart. In the last re-map the head map drawer for the Oklahoma House was a former grad student of mine, so he coordinated and ran all the maps and everything. He's a professor in Ohio now. And one thing that they discovered is every lawmaker came in the room with their ideal map, right? And it looked like the ultimate ven diagram, right? Every one of these maps overlapped every one of each other's. And you can start with that, and then you kind of negotiate around, you cobble around it. Redistricting is easiest when you have one person in charge who can get the job done and be a dictator to everybody else. But that doesn't happen very often.
Pryor: Keith, commission redistricting, as opposed to the way it's being done now, would that be better?
Gaddie: It can help. A commission creates a degree of independence from the legislature. But the thing is you ultimately need legislative action to implement a commission map. The legislatures have to ratify what was done because it is a law that you are imposing when you do this/ you're changing election law when you draw a new map. Where commissions...Commissions were only as effective as the criteria they use, OK?. Are you going to require districts to be compact? Are require that counties not be divided up needlessly? Are you going to have a back-end check to make sure that parties don't take advantage of the process or one party isn't overly advantaged?
Pryor: Recognizing that changing demographics and the hardening demographics in Oklahoma, how do you see the legislative and congressional districts evolving in the state over the next few years?
Gaddie: Well you know we've already...We're going to see increased racial and ethnic diversity. The question is is that diversity going to translate into politics? Oklahoma's interesting in that when it comes to electing representatives, we've had as much success electing African-Americans and Hispanics and Asians and Native Americans as Republicans as Democrats, OK? So there is a tendency in the electorate and among the ambitious politicians, regardless of race, to perform in both parties. So that's the big unknown is how that diversity translates into partisan composition in the future. But what'll happen...20 years from now the legislature will be a lot more urban, a lot more suburban. It will be a lot more female will be a lot less white. It will probably better educated. It's going to be a horse of a different color. It will be very different.
Pryor: University of Oklahoma political scientist Keith Gaddie, as always, thank you.
Gaddie: Pleasure to be here.
Pryor: That's Capitol Insider. If you have questions e-mail us firstname.lastname@example.org or contact us on Twitter: @kgounews. Until next time it's Shawn Ashley, I'm Dick Pryor.
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