Downsizing wards

In 1890, Oklahoma City was set up with four wards; in 1966, following a spate of annexations, the city was redivided into eight wards.

Last month I mentioned that there was some discussion about expanding the City Council further, and noted that there had been talk as early as 1990 in support of a twelve-ward system. At the time, I had my doubts:

[D]o we need twelve wards? Will Council Member So-and-so be “more accessible” if he has 45,000 constituents instead of 67,500? And how much gerrymandering can we expect if new lines are to be drawn?

My thinking, in order: not necessarily; not necessarily; probably a hell of a lot.

At this week’s Council meeting, Pete White (Ward 4) said he’d like to see a ten-ward system in place before the next batch of city elections in 2007. Mayor Cornett was doubtful: “In general, I don’t like to create more government.”

One of White’s arguments was that there is insufficient minority representation:

“I think the council doesn’t look like the city,” White said. “We have a pretty diverse population in Oklahoma City and one black person on the council.”

This is, I think, a dubious premise at best. More to the point, owing to the demographics of the city — as is the case in most cities, minorities are not evenly distributed — it won’t change much by adding two wards unless they go out of their way to create bizarre-looking districts that violate the City Charter.

The wards shall be as compact in form as possible and ward lines shall not set up artificial corridors which in effect separate voters from the ward to which they most naturally belong. [Charter, 2 April 1957, amended 18 March 1975.]

In 1992, the redistricting mandated by the 1990 Census drew some public discussion along the lines described by Councilman White; city attorneys pointed out that the Voting Rights Act did not actually require proportional representation. (42 USC §1973, paragraph B specifies that “nothing in this section establishes a right to have members of a protected class elected in numbers equal to their proportion in the population.”) The city’s analysis, including both that 1992 discussion and the results of a 2006 survey conducted at White’s request, is here. [Link to PDF file.]

Councilman White’s other primary motivation is simply that Ward 4, which occupies the southeastern part of the city, much of which is rural, is just too darn big. Wards 1, 3 and 7 are similarly huge. The problem, of course, is that cutting the population of those wards by twenty percent won’t reduce their size by twenty percent. If we’re going to expand the Council, we will get closer to the desired results if we go for twelve seats rather than ten. I think Pete White knows this, but figures he stands a better chance of selling a ten-ward Council.


  1. Michael Bates »

    18 October 2006 · 12:56 pm

    At the last census, Tulsa had about 43,000 people per council district, which is still too big in my opinion. A district for representation at the city level ought be no bigger than a district for representation at the state level.

  2. CGHill »

    18 October 2006 · 1:06 pm

    Which would be around 35,000 if I’ve counted correctly.

    Would you suggest Tulsa go to a 12-ward system? (We’d need 15 or 16 here.)

  3. McGehee »

    18 October 2006 · 3:47 pm

    I refuse to live in a city where a city council district would have more people than a legislative district. It was bad enough living in a borough in Alaska where all eleven members (since reduced to nine) of the borough assembly (municipal government comparable to a county commission) were elected at-large.

    The borough’s population fills five legislative districts and change, but the locals refuse to consider borough assembly districts because they can’t figure out how it could possibly work.

    After all, nobody has ever divided a municipality into districts before! </sarcasm>

  4. CGHill »

    18 October 2006 · 3:56 pm

    Milwaukee (population 575,000, or about 35,000 more than Oklahoma City) has seventeen aldermen — one for every 34,000 people.

    On the other hand, Seattle, about the same size, gets by with a nine-member council.

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