On OK’s justice reform Q, city reps. strayed furthest from their constituents
Voters who live in Republican state House districts in Oklahoma’s metropolitan areas are more likely than others in the state to have been contradicted by their own representatives last Thursday when the House voted to roll back some of the criminal reforms in a successful state question.
Most representatives who voted for the rollback bill hail from House districts that passed State Question 780, according to a preliminary review of their districts.
SQ 780, which passed in the November 2016 election with 58% of the vote statewide, changes many simple drug possession crimes (not including dealing) from felonies to misdemeanors, among other reforms. House Bill 1482, which barely made it out of the House last Thursday, would create the option to continue charging drug possession as a felony if someone is caught within 1,000 feet of a school, church, public park or daycare.
In other words, a little more than four months after voters passed a plan, the Oklahoma House endorsed undoing part of it.
The prevailing narrative, courtesy of the bill’s author Rep. Scott Biggs, is one of lawmakers knowingly contradicting the will of the people they’re supposed to represent because they believed voters didn’t know what the state question was really about.
There’s no question that HB 1482 would directly undo a change voters approved before it even gets implemented, but I wanted to get an idea of how the representatives fared compared to their local districts.
Using precinct-level results on SQ 780, I gauged voter support for the reforms in every district with a representative who voted “yea” on HB 1482. Then I used those results to get an idea of which reps. strayed furthest from their constituents’ voices.
Here are the results:
Most representatives who voted for the roll-back bill came from House districts that passed the state question or were split on it. SQ 780 passed with 51% or more in 29 of those districts. An additional six districts were essentially tied.
15 representatives can reasonably claim to be speaking for their constituents because their districts voted against SQ 780. I was unable to analyze one other district, but I suspect it would be in this group as well.
The top 10 districts that showed the most support for SQ 780 but had a representative who voted to weaken it are in Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Lawton and their suburbs. Rep. Randy McDaniel’s district in north Oklahoma City and Nichols Hills passed SQ 780 with 74% of the vote, but McDaniel voted to roll back its reforms. Rep. Weldon Watson from Broken Arrow and Tulsa also voted for HB 1482, even though 67% of his voting constituents gave SQ 780 a thumbs up.
The 10 districts that most strongly opposed SQ 780 are in largely rural areas of the state. In Rep. Johnny Tadlock’s district, where the largest town is Idabel (pop. 7,000), 62% of voters went against question. Tadlock was one of three Democratic representatives to vote for the rollback. All three represent districts that opposed the state question.
Who Knows What’s Next?
HB 1482 seems doomed. Gov. Mary Fallin is flirting with opposing it (but not enough to threaten a veto), and its proponent in the state Senate — Sen. Ralph Shortey — is … out of the picture. Last month Sen. Shortey said possession of certain drugs, specifically date rape drugs, should still result in automatic felonies. Today he was charged with a few felonies of his own, and his senate colleagues have unanimously voted to suspend him.
Even if HB 1482 goes down, the state’s district attorneys seem unlikely to drop the issue. An opinion piece from the Fair Punishment Project that’s been making the social media rounds sums up the arguments DAs have made for HB 1482.
The real fights over criminal justice reform in Oklahoma feel like they’re only getting started.
With Voters, It’s Rural vs. Urban. Not in the House.
To a certain extent, the SQ 780 results may reflect the rural-urban divide that’s been cited in just about every 2016 race, including the presidency. A map from Oklahoma Watch shows more urban and suburban precincts supported reforms, while rural areas of the state, like the panhandle, were solidly opposed.
Metro areas would likely be more affected by both the state question and its rollback bill. Large swaths of land in Oklahoma City and Tulsa would fall under HB 1482’s potential felony zones simply due to density. Representatives from those districts have the greatest cause to be skeptical of HB 1482. Many of them, however, voted for HB 1482.
The state of Oklahoma’s judicial system is notorious. Its nationally high incarceration rates and large number of felony convictions have spurred bipartisan efforts to make sweeping changes. The public face of the pro-reform state questions was former Speaker of the House Kris Steele, a Republican. Joe Dorman, the Democrats’ final semi-serious contender for the governorship, is speaking out against HB 1482 over its potential to hit kids with felony charges.
With institutional momentum in favor of sentencing reform and the direct endorsement of voters in most of their districts, why did 51 state representatives vote to water down the state question? And why did 29 of them ignore clear majorities of support for the state question in their neighborhoods?
Much of the conversation has focus on Rep. Biggs’ comments about voters’ naivety. His district voted against SQ 780, as did House Speaker Charles McCall’s.
Whether or not the bill finds a path to the governor’s desk, it might be helpful to take a closer look at the city representatives who strayed furthest from their own constituents’ voices, and to ask them where they’re coming from.
Note on the Data: This is more of a masochistic exercise than an official, fact-checked study, and I’m just a guy who regretted jumping down this data hole halfway through. Take the results as a general gauge more than a precise indicator. I built precinct lists for each representative using election results. The longer a rep. has gone unchallenged, the more likely it is his or her precincts may have changed slightly. In fact, I didn’t analyze results in Rep. Harold Wright’s district because the last time he was in an election — Nov. 2008 — was apparently before the state election board posted precinct-level results online. Two precincts in Oklahoma City and Tulsa listed votes for handfuls of representatives together. I cut these out of the district counts, which could affect percentages and rankings, but seems unlikely to change a representative’s status as in-step or out-of-step with his or her voters.