Oklahoma lawmakers have a state constitutionally-required deadline on May 28th, the end of their current session, to pass new legislative district maps. But this isn’t just the case in Oklahoma. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are 12 other states with constitutions calling for redistricting in the year after the census.
Ordinarily, the census bureau is required to release all of the data states need to redraw their districts by April 1. This year, that data was put on hold until September.
Redistricting is the process of drawing new U.S. congressional and state legislative boundaries, in order to account for a variety of factors, such as population. It is usually done every 10 years as a new census is completed. Oklahoma has five congressional districts, 101 districts in the state House of Representatives, and 48 districts in the state Senate.
In Oklahoma, the redistricting process is overseen by the Legislature. Both the state House and state Senate have their own committees that work with their own redistricting offices to draw the maps. The committees then work together to approve the maps - with the chosen boundaries lines under veto authority by the governor.
This year, without the usual data from the census to use, the Legislature will draw maps using population estimates in the 2015-2019 American Community Survey.
“If the population hasn’t shifted that much, there won’t be a huge responsibility to change a whole lot,” James Davenport, a professor of political science at Rose State College in Midwest City, said.
Lawmakers have said the data from the survey, though it doesn’t show the changes in population over a 10 year period like the census would, still allows them to make a map projection and still meet the deadline on May 28th.
Lawmakers have said with just the ACS data they can draw maps and meet the deadline, even though the survey uses estimates of population averaged over several years, rather than a count of every person in the state.
But Davenport says there are still some unknowns about what 2020 meant for the state’s census statistics. For example, whether single-person households increased or decreased, or if the state’s overall population went up or down - which would have direct impacts on how large districts in the Legislature should be and how they should be represented
It is also still largely unclear what kind of impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on that data.
But while lawmakers can use the ACS data to draw new legislative boundaries, Oklahoma’s 5 congressional districts will have to wait. That is because legislative boundaries take into account a 2.5 variance above or below the population currently represented in each district - while congressional districts don’t have as much wiggle room.
“They'll either be looking at having to have a special session called to deal just with the redistricting issue or hoping that they can complete it in the early part of the next session in next year in time for the elections,” Davenport said.
The new boundaries that are chosen will determine how state legislative lines will look, and likely who will be represented by whom from the years 2022 to 2030.
On top of this already unusual redistricting year, Oklahoma is trying something new. For the first time, the general public was able to submit their own maps.
Dan Williams is one of the people submitting a map. He worked for the House Redistricting Office, until he was laid off because of the census delays. Even though he wouldn’t be working for the Legislature during redistricting, he still wanted to submit his own map on behalf of the people of Oklahoma.
“I talked myself into submitting a public map,” Williams said, “but I didn't want it to just be Dan's map. I want this to be Oklahoma's public maps submission.”
Williams set up a Facebook Group called “Oklahomans Redistrict Oklahoma,” where he posts videos of himself drawing the maps and explaining why he’s drawing them the way he is - all while asking for public input. But just because he submits a map, doesn’t mean the politicians who have final say will use his ideas.
“That's something I know going into the process. But at the end of the day, I can't let that fear paralyze me,” he said.
Williams, like other members of the public who submit maps by April 4th, will have a chance to explain his work to the redistricting committees. Those committee members will have to decide what aspects of his map -- if any -- are worth incorporating into the official redistricting plan.
Oklahoma’s constitution does include a backup plan for if the Legislature can’t get maps passed by the end of the session. The responsibility for redistricting would then go to an independent committee, appointed by leaders in the Legislature and the Governor.
However, Sen. Lonnie Paxton, the chair of the Senate Redistricting Committee, says that was never really an option.
“That commission’s work would not then go to the legislature,” Paxton said. “They would draw it and then it’s done. So it would avoid the legislative process, which we don’t like to adopt things this big and avoid the legislative process.”
The conflict between whether the legislative process or independent commissions make for better maps isn’t new.
Last year, proponents of independent redistricting introduced state questions that would’ve taken redistricting away from the legislature, and created a 9 member committee overseeing redistricting. None of those state questions made it onto ballots.