A Little PropRep for Oklahoma

I’m hesitant to trundle out the old trope about the multitude of states being laboratories of democracy, I’m going to do it anyway for convenience. Sometimes the image is reality. One fearless state might venture out on a controversial issue such as legalization of marijuana or gay marriage, and, observing that this state does not immediately sink ashen gray into the sea, other states soon follow suit. Regarding social issues there is certainly some laudable outright experimentation, especially regarding medicinal drug use and equal protection issues. However, most of the time the various states in the Union are dishearteningly uniform in their conception and execution of the democratic process. Every state since independence has variously modeled their state governments on the structure of the federal government, essentially unitary executives, supreme courts, and bicameral legislatures abound—except of course for the noble and notable stand-out Nebraska.

Most states opted to have a House of Representatives, with members drawn from geographic districts redrawn at regular intervals and apportioned based on population. This meant each representative spoke on behalf of approximately the same number of people. Many states also had established Senates, which were generally set up with one or two members being chosen to represent each of several fixed districts or occasionally counties within the state. The states took the federal Senate as a model. The federal Senate features two senators from every state, regardless of population size, geographic area or mean body mass index (BMI)—all numbers coincidentally which are equally inappropriate for determining political power and representation. The oft forgotten Supreme Court decision in Reynolds v. Sims (1964) made it illegal for states to apportion senators in a way that gave some districts or counties unequal representation. The idea being that every citizen, regardless of which county they inhabited was deserving of an equal voice in politics, and citizens in large counties were disproportionately disenfranchised by being represented by only two state Senators. The privilege of inflicting that kind of inequality on the people was reserved only for the federal government. Consequently, in the 1960s most states reformed their state senates into population-based geographic districts with ever-fluctuating borders. The result being that most states today essentially have two Houses of Representatives.

Oklahoma has a big House of Representatives and a small House of Representatives (the Senate). Each has its own rules, wing of the capitol building, electoral infrastructure and districts. Oklahoma is also divided into a cavalcade of sub-state districts. We have Senate districts, House districts, counties, rural water districts, schools districts, special economic zones, city service limits, city council districts, sub-municipal neighborhood associations, tribal nation jurisdictions, court districts and others and typically none of these overlap in any meaningful way or predictable way. Citizens who have lived in Oklahoma all their lives are at a loss to understand the basics of how their government(s) function(s), who is in charge of what, why and how.

The idea of dividing up a large piece of land such as a nation-state into smaller more manageable chunks is not a new one. In fact, it’s the easiest way to divide the labor required to govern. But the idea is rooted in a pre-modern conception of power and tenacious ideas that blossomed in feudal times. The founders of the United States lived during a time dominated by ideas of geographic authority. The British monarchy reigned over what? Land. And as a consequence, the people within that land. One reason Britain was so successful as an empire because it shrewdly innovated and extended the idea of terrestrial authority over the sea, not just a particular sea, but all the world’s oceans. Early kings were kings of certain places, and they held no power outside their physical realms. Other lands were outside, ruled over by outsiders, foreign. This was the history Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton and the others emerged from. They all had a geographic fetishist’s obsession with borders, land and jurisdictions, and were preoccupied by the size of a domain and its distinguishing features, rather than the character and opinions of the people within. It is only in their pre-modern era, when the American people began to face the hard problem of designing a government to represent the divergent views of three-dimensional people, that the geographic notions begin to evolve slightly. In Madison’s time, the power of rulers might be seen to encompass not only physical land and the people dwelling in that land, but also people outside that land with some special tie of blood or commerce to the land. It is not surprising that the American system of republican representation is based on geography. The idea is simple, fairly sound and not entirely unreasonable. Citizens of any region, or city are likely to have vaguely similar ideas about commerce, shipping and harbor operations, agricultural policy and taxation, why not have them speak with one voice on those subjects? Why not on all subjects?

Most of the other democracies have moved on from these notions. Many still feature some aspects of geographic representation, and it stands to reason that geography is indeed important in shaping the interests and desires of a group of people. The UK, Germany, Japan and many others all take geography into account. It’s only the US that stubbornly continues to inject geography into every aspect of governance. Is geography a valid lens through which to view the myriad political questions we are facing? Are people who live in the hills of south Tulsa naturally disposed to oppose transgender bathroom access because of their particular geography? Are those who live on the north side of 31st Street, more likely to benefit from increased education spending than those on the south side of 31st Street? Possibly. But why rely entirely on the peculiarities of zip code to make these determinations? Why not allow like-minded citizens to pool their power with those throughout the state, regardless of where they live and speak with one voice on any given subject? Geographic representation always ensures a sizeable minority of the district are powerless, and subject to whatever potentially nonsensical whims the majority in that district choose to inflict them. A better way would be to spread the basis for representation to considerations other than physical geography.

Reforming one of the two houses of the legislature would go a long way to bringing our republican system into the modern era. No state in the Union has yet attempted anything like this, but as our institutions continue their long-term systemic decline into irrelevance in the face of a dynamic and aggressive slate of market democracies, it would behoove us to seriously consider radical ideas. This proposal would certainly require amendments to the Oklahoma constitution, but that document is as ephemeral as Oklahoma weather, and we have had no hesitation in altering it in the past. Unfortunately, this proposal would also help dismantle the entrenched power structures in the state. To see the superiority of the proposed system requires a little imagination, for the simple reason that we don’t have a system like it in easy reach to observe. I believe it is superior to what have today, but that’s not saying much. This kind of change isn’t really very radical, but because it’s outside the norm (for American states) it will be seen as radical. For this reason alone it will be difficult to bring about.

My proposal for a measured form of proportional representation for Oklahoma is described briefly below, and a bulleted outline follows.

Oklahoma State House of Representatives
First, I propose no changes to the House of Representatives (OHR). It’s size and composition, despite gerrymandered districts is not abhorrent to democracy. Reforms to the process by which districts are redrawn following the census are absolutely need in Oklahoma, but I’m not going to address those concerns here. Under this proposal, the OHR shall retain its members, districts, redistricting processes (for now) and rules.
The methods for selecting members to the OHR remain as they are. Specifically, the OHR will continue to utilize single seat geographic districts with representatives selected using the traditional first-past-the-post (FPTP) methodology. It is not a perfect system by any means, but will lend stability to the reform process, and provide a fulcrum of authority and tradition upon which this revolution in process will occur.

Oklahoma State Senate
The Oklahoma State Senate (OSS) should be reformed into a proportionally representative legislative body drawn from a single statewide multi-member district. In other words, State Senators will be drawn at-large from the state. The authority and powers of the Senate as one of Oklahoma’s legislative bodies shall remain unchanged, but the process by which those members are selected will be simpler, cheaper, more efficient and more responsive to the will of the people. The body will have 48 members, as it does today.

The details of the balloting process by which members are selected is a thorny rabbit hole, but here at least we can draw on the experiences of other nations to show us what works, what doesn’t and what the trade-offs are. I propose that when voters enter the booth to choose their Senators they will do it in the following manner: They are provided two ballots, each of which represents a vote for two separate but related things. The first vote is for Senate leadership. Here the voter casts a single vote for an individual politician. This ballot will use a single-transferable vote (STV) method to determine the winner of various offices in the Oklahoma Senate. These offices are the President Pro Tempore of the Oklahoma Senate, and the Party Whips of the various parties which may or may not earn seats in the Senate. The individual who wins this vote becomes President Pro Tempore, a prominent position in the Oklahoma Senate with the power to preside over the session and a great deal of influence in committee assignments and procedures. The individuals with the highest number of votes in their respective parties become the whips of their parties should their party be fortunate enough to wins seats in the second vote.

The second vote allows voters to endorse a party platform and list of proposed Senators selected by the various parties in their caucuses or primary elections, or whatever methods they use to select them. The ballot will publish the names of all the individual politicians who are proposed senators from that particular party, in order of precedence. This party list will contain the full name, city and county of residence and occupation of every candidate. Just as today, these politicians are pledged to support their party’s platform and tend to caucus together when in session. The number of seats awarded to each party will be based on a simple proportion of the total votes cast. If 60% of the votes cast are for the Republican Party, then 29 (60% rounded) of the 48 Senate seats are awarded to Republicans. The first 29 Republicans listed on the party’s roster become Senators. If 3% of the votes are cast for the Socialist Party roster, then 1 (3% rounded) of the Senators will be a Socialist.

The advantages of this system are manifold. It gives voice to smaller parties, in exact proportion to what it they earn at the ballot! It disrupts the entrenched two-party system which has been so destructive to prosperity and well-being of Oklahoma’s citizens. It still permits voters to vote for individuals they know and trust, but does not penalize voters for not knowing the detailed biographies of every candidate running for office. It allows Democrats and Republicans to vote for individuals they trust even if they are members of a different party. So if a Democratic voter fully endorses the Democratic Party platform, but wants their favorite independent or Green Party candidate to have a seat at the table, they can still cast a vote that expresses that view. There many details to be worked out of course, and we must take care that the entrenched interests don’t corrupt the process, but this proposal provides a way for Oklahoma to be an innovator in the democratic process, show some leadership that will garner international attention, and advance American ideals in one of the most disadvantaged states.

  • Oklahoma House of Representatives (OHR)

    • No changes recommended
    • Retains its members, districts and redistricting process, rules
    • methods for selecting members to the OHR remain as they are
        • Single seat geographic districts with representatives selected using the traditional first-past-the-post (FPTP) methodology
    • Oklahoma Senate (OSS)
      • Reform Senate into a proportionally representative legislative body
        • Members drawn at-large from the entire state
        • Ballot requires the voter to cast two (2) votes

        First Vote is for Senate leadership

        • People select Senate leadership positions by casting votes for individual politicians (President Pro Tempore, party Whips, etc.)
          • President Pro Tempore
            • Ballot utilizes a single-transferable vote (STV) method
            • Voter may rank their choices on the ballot, marking “1” next to their first choice, “2” next to their second choice, and “3” next to their third choice
          • Party Whips
            • Individual with the largest number of votes becomes the Whip of their party should their party gain seats in the Senate
            • The individual with the second largest number of votes becomes Whip of his party, if the person with the largest number of votes becomes President Pro Tempore
      • Second Vote is to endorse a party platform and party list
        • Votes selects a party platform to endorse,
          • Seats are awarded based on a percentage of votes cast (eg. if 25% of the votes endorse the Democratic Party platform, then 25% of the 48 Senate seats go to Democrats)
        • Ballot includes a published ranked list of 48 politicians from each party who are pledged to advance their platform
          • Party lists are presented on the ballot in the order they will fill seats (the first name on the list will be first choice to fill a Senate seat should that party win any seats)
          • Party list includes the name, hometown, county and occupation of each candidate