With only a couple of days standing between lawmakers and Wyoming’s 2022 budget session, the Legislature’s Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions committee settled on a redistricting bill Friday.
Also known as the 62-31 plan, the bill adds two House districts and one Senate district. The committee tabled a back-up plan that it had previously sponsored; that plan did not add more districts.
The 62-31 plan is the end result of a drawn-out, sometimes contentious process. The committee’s longest-standing member, Sen. Charlie Scott (R-Casper), told WyoFile it has not historically come down to the wire.
Redistricting is required by lawmakers every 10 years following a census. The idea is to refresh voting district lines to accurately reflect any population changes.
Urban-rural tensions have run high at times as lawmakers proposed new district lines that have runoff election implications for some. In addition, advocates for one of the state’s fastest-growing areas claim some lawmakers’ desires to protect their own seats, instead of giving voters fair representation, have driven much of the deliberations.
Those dynamics are likely to continue as the eleventh-hour bill is put to the full Legislature. Lawmakers must approve a new map during the session and by March 4.
The redistricting process follows the 2020 census, which revealed population shifts across the state. Laramie and Teton counties tied at 9.6% for the highest population gains over the previous decade, while Sublette County had the biggest population decline at 14.8%. And growth in places like Laramie County is a reason for more representation, according to advocates like Antonio Serrano with the ACLU of Wyoming.
“When redistricting is conducted properly, district lines are redrawn to reflect population changes and racial diversity,” Serrano said in a press release ahead of a January redistricting meeting. His group was in opposition of a plan, known as the I-80 compromise, that the ACLU claimed did not “adequately represent communities of interest, like the south side of Cheyenne, a working-class neighborhood and the most diverse part of the city.”
The I-80 compromise would have split the Latino population into four separate districts, thereby diluting its voting powers.
Along with Serrano, Carla Gregorio, vice president of the Wyoming Independent Citizens Coalition, advocated for the 62-31 bill. For Gregorio, that included testifying to the legislature for the first time. Despite feeling nervous, it was important to come out and support it, Gregorio said, since it would split south Cheyenne’s large Hispanic population into two districts instead of four.
For 26 years, Gregorio was an elementary school principal in south Cheyenne. She described her school as “the poorest in town” and said the city has long neglected the area and its diverse population. That’s another reason Gregario wants to see the 62-31 plan succeed — she thinks different representation at the state level will secure resources the constituents don’t currently have, like Medicaid.
“We have blue-collar workers and … they just don’t have adequate health insurance,” Gregorio said.
El Cameron grew up in south Cheyenne and has also been involved with advocating for her childhood neighborhood. She has since moved to the west side of town, but still feels strongly in favor of the 62-31 plan.
Plus, she’s been concerned about the way the process has played out.
“Those legislators are more concerned in holding onto their seat than really making sure that the people are getting represented,” Cameron said.
Runoffs and backups
When the committee met Friday, it was members’ last chance to agree on one map to bring into the session. Lawmakers spent the morning adding amendments to iron details, particularly for Goshen, Laramie and Platte counties. In the afternoon, concerns similar to Cameron’s were raised during the public comment.
“One of the first things I heard when this committee started last August was, ‘we’re not going to pay any attention to where current legislators live. And for the last half hour, you have sat here trying to figure out where legislators live,’” said Jack Mueller of Cheyenne.
The committee had been discussing a part of the map involving Laramie County, where they had not been able to separate two incumbent House members — Rep. Jim Blackburn (R-Cheyenne) and Rep. Clarence Styvar (R-Cheyenne). If the 62-31 map becomes law, the two lawmakers will be forced into a runoff election, unless they plan to retire.
Right now this is the only runoff scenario contained in the proposed bill, according to the LSO.
In response to Mueller, Rep. Mike Yin (D-Teton) said if the public doesn’t want the Legislature in charge of redistricting, an alternative process exists — an independent redistricting commission. Rep. Jim Roscoe (I-Wilson) suggested lawmakers study the option as a potential interim topic. The Equality State Policy Center, a non-profit dedicated to government transparency and accountability, has voiced support for such a method.
“There is not a perfect solution to redistricting, but we can definitely improve on the process that has taken place during the last six months,” Jenn Lowe, executive director of the ESPC, told WyoFile in an email. “Wyoming can, and should, do better.”
Before the vote on the bill, there was only one other public comment, this one from Sen. Tom James (R-Rock Springs). He asked Co-chairman Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne), “where do you live?”
The question was in reference to allegations that Zwonitzer lives outside his district.
Co-chairman Sen. Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) told the senator it was “not the appropriate place” and the matter was in the hands of House Speaker Eric Barlow (R-Gillette).
The bill passed on a vote of 11-3, with Scott, Blackburn and Rep. Aaron Clausen (R-Douglas) opposed. Shortly after, the committee voted to table Scott’s back-up plan that did not add additional lawmakers.
Like budget bills, legislation related to redistricting will also automatically be heard by the legislature and won’t need to clear the two-thirds introductory vote hurdle. The proposed bill is likely to be amended as it moves through the legislative process.