The 2021 Oklahoma legislative session doesn't begin until February, but already members of the Senate and House of Representatives are working on one of the biggest challenges of the year: redistricting. In the first of two parts, KGOU's Dick Pryor and eCapitol's Shawn Ashley discuss how the chambers will handle redistricting with the two legislators who are spearheading the effort.
Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider, your weekly look inside Oklahoma politics, policy and government. I'm Dick Pryor with eCapitol news director, Shawn Ashley. One of the biggest tasks facing the next legislature when it begins its work in February will be redistricting. Our guests are House Redistricting Committee Chair, Representative Ryan Martinez, Republican from Edmond and Senate Select Committee on Redistricting Chair, Senator Lonnie Paxton, Republican from Tuttle. Welcome, gentlemen.
Lonnie Paxton and Ryan Martinez: Thank you for having us.
Shawn Ashley: The state is not scheduled to receive data from the U.S. Census Bureau until as late as April, but work has already begun on redistricting. Representative Martinez, let's start with you. What has the House already been doing to prepare for redistricting?
Rep. Ryan Martinez: As you mentioned, we are eagerly anticipating getting those precise numbers from the Census Bureau. But in the meantime, we've been able to kind of set up the infrastructure for how this is going to work. Every single member of the House has been appointed to a subcommittee for redistricting so their constituents will have a way to voice their concerns or ideas through their elected representative.
But also, we have decided this year to do a series of public meetings that would allow members from the public (to) come and share their concerns. Talk to us about areas of interest or different ideas when it comes to what they want their legislative districts to look like. A few of those meetings have launched. They’re all across the state and we've had great turnout. Of course, doing this during a pandemic makes it a little more challenging. But we offer online options and record videos just to really get the citizens of Oklahoma engaged, because that really is our top priority. And if we're hearing from them and getting their input, the final product will be much better.
Shawn Ashley: Senator Paxton, what has the Senate been doing?
Sen. Lonnie Paxton: Well, I would say this time probably more than in the past the House and the Senate are working very, very close together. So, what Representative Martinez talked about is a lot of what the Senate is doing as well. And we've also had some meetings at the Capitol where Representative Martinez and I have shared those meetings. The last one we had was one that dealt with the actual software that we'll be using, and it was a legislative demonstration, so all the legislators in a bipartisan way and bicameral way, can see what it is that we're going to be doing with this software, kind of how the software works. So, we had that meeting and that's the kind of things that we're working together on. And so we, as well, kicked off our town hall meetings in multiple cities and we'll be finishing those up by the end of January.
Dick Pryor: Representative Martinez, redistricting is driven largely by population. Oklahoma has seen its population shift from rural to urban in recent years. How will that affect redistricting in the year ahead?
Rep. Ryan Martinez: This is absolutely the case in Oklahoma, but you see it happening across the nation as well. This is a very common population shift. We're estimating like a House district this time will have between thirty-eight and thirty-nine thousand people living in it. So, you will definitely see a shift because remember, we're trying to equalize these seats and make sure that there's an equal number of people in every single seat, so if we have to move into the suburban and urban areas to find population, they'll be different and they'll grow accordingly.
Shawn Ashley: Senator Paxton, committees in both chambers, as you have mentioned, have held public hearings on redistricting and there are more to come. What are you hoping to learn in these hearings and what have you heard so far?
Sen. Lonnie Paxton: Everybody's concerned about what happens in their districts and we get a lot of that information. So, for example, we were in Ada. In that town hall there was a person there who pointed out the fact that the entire county is represented by one representative and one senator and they liked it kept that way. That was their input into that meeting is they wanted to make sure that that county was kept whole inside of the House and Senate district. But then you go to another community and they may be divided by three House districts and two Senate districts. And that person might like that because they feel like they have more representation in their city. That's just an example of what we're hearing.
Dick Pryor: Representative Martinez, gerrymandering is always a concern in redistricting. How do you see the committees avoiding political bias in what is a decidedly political process?
Rep. Ryan Martinez: Yeah, no, that's a great question. So, one thing that we have decided early on in this process, and we talked about this briefly when we were showing the actual software that we're going to be using to draw the maps and all that great stuff - the data that we're using in that system does not even include voter data. When we're looking at those numbers, we have no idea how a person's registered or how they voted. We’re simply doing it based on the statistics that we have received from the Census Bureau, where they live and things like that. Now, Oklahoma has chosen to do that. There are some states that do look at election data. That is something that we've chosen not to do just to keep this fair and to make sure that this is done based off of population and communities of interest and things in that regard. So, I think just that right out of the gate is a way to make sure, that this is done in an objective and a fair way.
Shawn Ashley: Senator Paxton, how about the Senate?
Sen. Lonnie Paxton: Yeah, the fortunate thing this year is we're using the same software. Ten years ago that was not the case and it creates some problems when you try to overlay House and Senate districts together. So, we have the same software with the same parameters.
Dick Pryor: Good to know. Senator Lonnie Paxton, Representative Ryan Martinez, thanks for joining us. And that's part one of our Capitol Insider discussion on redistricting. If you have questions, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact us on Twitter @kgounews and @eCapitol. You can also find us online kgou.org and ecapitol.net. Until next time, with Shawn Ashley, I’m Dick Pryor.