Norman's Democratic lawmakers ask for independent redistricting process

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Oct. 17—Norman's Democrat state lawmakers significantly benefited from proposed redistricting maps that make their districts more blue and re-election a safer bid, but all say they want a redistricting process that takes politicians out of the equation.

In the current redistricting process, lawmakers propose their own maps, then a commission of lawmakers creates updated maps. The legislature holds public hearings to receive feedback on proposals.

Lawmakers allowed for a 5% deviation in population while drawing the proposed districts. The deviation allowed for either 2.5% less or more population in each district. Each Senate district must include about 81,935 residents, and each House district must include about 38,939 people, The Oklahoman reported.

The currently released maps likely won't be the final maps, because they were created without new census data. But the final version is likely to look similar to the released proposals, lawmakers said.

The data shows most of Norman's lawmakers could have an easier path to re-election and to Democrats retaining House District 44 once state House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, terms out.

State Sen. Rob Standridge, the lone Republican representing Norman, did not respond to The Transcript's request for comment.

Democratic districts go bluer

In order to reach the population requirements, some districts in Norman had to lose population, while others had to gain population.

According to the proposals, state Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman, state Rep. Merleyn Bell, D-Norman, state Sen. Mary Boren, D-Norman, and Standridge lost population, while Virgin gained.

Rosecrants lost the entire piece of his district that used to be in Noble, and gained more areas of core Norman. Noble historically votes red, and rarely gives many votes to Rosecrants. Meanwhile, core Norman has historically voted blue, and is where Rosecrants picks up much of his support.

The shift was due to the migration of population from rural areas to more urban areas like Norman, Rosecrants said.

"Across the board, rural areas lost population and more urban areas and suburban areas gained population, and that's definitely what happened with House District 46," he said.

The same can be said for each other member of Norman's state delegation — their districts became much safer for them in the future, according to precinct data. The data shows the precincts in their new districts lean more toward the incumbent's party than the districts did in the last decade.

Lawmakers ask for change

Even as their districts become bluer, lawmakers said they would like to see the redistricting process changed.

Prior to redistricting, members of the Norman delegation were advocating for an independent commission. Although they believe the most recent process was fair, they still believe the commission is needed come 2030.

Politicians will always have some sort of bias toward their party or their own re-election, Virgin said, which is why a nonpartisan independent commission is needed.

"It was as fair as possible with politicians involved," she said. "I've long supported an independent commission that would draw the lines instead of the currently elected officials."

While she said the state House does not use partisan data and does not have access to it, Virgin said the incumbents involved in the process know the partisanship of precincts and areas. This knowledge plays a role in how they draw the lines, she said.

This isn't just a Republican majority problem, she said — rather, this is a human problem, where regardless of party, a politician's own self interest will almost always come into play.

"The process itself was about as good as it could be when currently elected officials are involved, but as I said, I would prefer to move this process out of the legislature," Virgin said. "... Several other states have independent commissions, and they make them up in a number of ways, but the idea is to keep politics out of it as much as possible."

Many states have implemented independent commissions in an effort to be more transparent about the process, but not all commissions are the same. Dave Wasserman, an editor for The Cook Political Report with Amy Walter, points out that even some independent commissions have partisan leanings.

"California, which first installed its citizens' commission in 2011, is politician-free and forbidden from considering partisan data and incumbents' residences when drawing new lines," he said in an article. "But in New Jersey, legislative leaders often tap close allies to serve on the bipartisan commission and resulting maps have often protected incumbents."

Some members hope for a commission like California's, and while they said the state maps turned out relatively fine the way they are, Norman's lawmakers are worried about how the congressional maps will turn out when all is said and done.

"The lack of bipartisanship on the congressional side has created this lack of transparency as if there's some kind of back deal or straining dynamic going on," Boren said. "Because there's no Democrats elected, so there's no need to be bipartisan. So that's slowing everything down."

Andy Moore, director of People not Politicians, an Oklahoma-based organization focused on making the redistricting process more fair through an independent commission, said taking politicians on both sides of the aisle out of the process should be a no-brainer.

While the public is allowed to voice its opinions on the maps, that feedback is minimal, Moore said, and needs to be increased.

"Politicians draw districts and that's not fair and it's not democratic," he said. "Districts should be drawn to be about the people who live there and about the general public, not just about the people who happen to represent it at the time that redistricting occurs."

Although the current version is not perfect, it is better than what took place in 2011, Virgin said. She said there were no town halls or public submissions on the final maps then.

Virgin said she hopes the trend continues, and by 2030, the state has an independent commission.

"So I think that this process is a much better one than we had in 2011 and our staff has worked really hard to get public comments and compile all that," she said. "So, this process is remarkably better than the one we had in 2011, but still that's a fairly low bar considering we still have politicians involved."

Reese Gorman covers politics and COVID-19 for The Transcript; reach him at rgorman@normantranscript.com or @reeseg_3.

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