The Legislature won’t convene the 2022 budget session for more than two months, but there’s already a runaway favorite for MVP honors. 

Who? Oh, this one is a shocker … the Wyoming Constitution!

Opinion

Yes, I’ve picked a 131-year-old inanimate object over any of the 90 flesh-and-blood lawmakers to be the most productive, capable and effective defender of our liberties. There’s no shame in that for the legislators — it’s still a lively document, and it truly shines when redistricting comes around every 10 years. 

Why? Because based on how the always-tricky process has played out thus far, I don’t think the House and Senate would ever agree on a new plan without a Constitutional mandate to do so. The architects of Wyoming’s government really knew what they were doing.

This isn’t a knock on members of the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee, who have been hard at work for months on a redistricting plan that will meet the U.S. Constitution’s principle of “one person, one vote.”

It’s a difficult task that lawmakers undertake during the first budget session after each U.S. Census. The committee set Dec. 1 as its deadline to draft a bill that redraws House and Senate district boundaries, but a week into December, it has only managed to approve a tentative plan that’s far from being finalized.

“We’ve got ourselves an impossible situation,” Sen. Charlie Scott (R-Casper), the longest-serving legislator in Wyoming’s history, said at the Dec. 2 meeting in Cheyenne.

Scott’s assessment came immediately after the panel rejected his proposal to advance a second plan. The one already in the hopper would give Laramie County — Wyoming’s largest — an additional House member, but Scott wanted to maintain the delegation from the state capitol region at the current 10 representatives. Scott opposed that proposed growth.

“We have been rolled in the process. I think that one county has exercised an extraordinary lack of statesmanship in this,” he said, clearly emotional. “I think we have transformed what was a relatively simple reapportionment into something that just isn’t going to work for one house of the Legislature, and I’m frankly disgusted. 

“This is my fifth one of these things … and I think it has been messed up like you wouldn’t believe,” Scott added.

Emotions were raw at the meeting, and not only due to the dust-up over the size of Laramie County’s House delegation. There was not a region in the state without a perceived problem — either with the proposed placement of district boundary lines or the number of voters in each district.

The committee decided to keep the Legislature’s current make-up of 60 House and 30 Senate seats. The “ideal” House district size, based on 2020 Census data, is about 9,600 residents. Two full, contiguous House districts are “nested” in each Senate district.

The U.S. Supreme Court allows a difference of plus or minus 5 percentage points between the arithmetically ideal size and each district’s actual composition. Here’s where map designers have their work cut out for them: Laramie County has grown by 9.25% since 2010 and now has 100,770 residents. That means it should have about 10.5 House members.

So, what do you do with one-half of a representative? Nothing, if Scott gets his way. Having crunched the numbers, he realized Laramie County can  stay at 10 House members with each district 4.9% above the ideal.

Co-Chairman Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne), though, called foul. That’s because while Scott wants to bump up the population size of each Laramie County House district, the senator’s plan would also allow all western Wyoming counties that have been shrinking to have districts between 4.6% to 4.9% under the ideal size.

While that drastic shift may meet constitutional muster, is it fair? “It would not be palatable to my community,” Zwonitzer said. 

I live in Cheyenne, and I’ll say what the co-chairman was driving at in a bit harsher terms: That part of Scott’s plan reeks. 

Why? Because it dilutes the power of Laramie County voters, who would get one representative per 10,070 residents. On the other side of the state, that same electoral result would be obtained in a House district serving only 9,130 residents.

Scott’s underlying concern with Zwonitzer’s plan to give Laramie County an 11th House member is how it impacts his own chamber. Which Senate district would be pulled toward Cheyenne to encapsulate the new House district? (Remember, it takes two House districts next to each other to “nest” in a Senate district.)

And if southeast Wyoming gets an extra senator, what part of the state loses one? It’s a valid concern, and I don’t fault Scott for raising the issue.

Zwonitzer said perhaps his county could share a Senate district with Albany or Platte counties. That would just rile up a different set of voters though. Platte County officials reported their residents overwhelmingly rejected sharing any district with Laramie County.

What could be seen as Platte’s inhospitable attitude is, in my view, justified, given the hard feelings left over in the region from a decade ago. Laramie County encroached on a Goshen County Senate district to spare two incumbents from having to oppose each other. That’s why Senate District 6 now snakes up the Nebraska border and includes the medium-security state prison in Torrington!

That bit of skullduggery could come back to bite Laramie County, which needs all the help it can muster if it wants an extra House seat in 2022.

Zwonitzer lobbed a few not-so-subtle grenades into the discussion. He didn’t use the loaded “G” word — gerrymandering — but he alluded to incumbents trying to protect their seats.

“I can tell you I’m not happy with how some of these maps were drawn … I know they look funny because I know where people live,” Zwonitzer said. “And I don’t think it’s in the best interests of those constituents in those communities, but that’s their own legislators’ concern.”

An unknown factor is how redistricting could impact future Senate races. Half of the 30 Senate seats — which are all four-year terms — are up for election every two years. But how many senators have to stand for election early as the result of district changes will be up to the Legislature.

There are myriad ways district boundaries will change between now and the session’s end in March. That a plan will be approved is assured, thanks to the Wyoming Constitution, but that doesn’t mean a majority — or anyone for that matter — will actually like it.

It may seem like a lot of blood was spilled at the committee’s two-day meeting, but it’s nothing compared to what will happen when all 90 legislators get their hands on the committee’s recommendations.

Wyoming would be wise to put redistricting in the hands of an independent commission, as 15 other states have done. No system is without flaws, but at least it would remove the stain of lawmakers blatantly trying to preserve their own jobs.

It won’t happen, of course. Such action would require a constitutional amendment, and there’s no way the Legislature would ever willingly give up its power.

Still, as I watched members battle over minutiae, one fact became painfully clear: anger, bewilderment and — as Scott said at least twice — personal disgust will define the process. 

Fourteen legislators and not a poker face among them? Now I’ve seen everything.

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

Join the Conversation

9 Comments

Want to join the discussion? Fantastic, here are the ground rules: * Provide your full name — no pseudonyms. WyoFile stands behind everything we publish and expects commenters to do the same. * No personal attacks, profanity, discriminatory language or threats. Keep it clean, civil and on topic. *WyoFile does not fact check every comment but, when noticed, submissions containing clear misinformation, demonstrably false statements of fact or links to sites trafficking in such will not be posted. *Individual commenters are limited to three comments per story, including replies.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. We folks here in Wyoming have a bad habit of forgetting at every other state in the country basically regards the whole state being basically like a fly sitting on a rinos butt, and you know the rest of the country is basically right. Nice to see the Tetons and Yellowstone and Devils Tower. other than that well…

  2. A few miscellaneous thoughts on redistricting.
    First, the courts have not found gerrymandering to protect incumbents unconstitutional unless it dilutes the voting power of a protected class (i.e. a minority concentrated in a particular area). Gerrymandering to protect or punish incumbents has been a mainstay of Wyoming redistricting since the first plan in 1992.
    Second, redistricting would not likely impact any sitting senator. Historically it hasn’t and W.S. 28-2-117 (c) specifically prohibited that in the 2012 redistricting. Unless the Legislature passed a new statute that reversed both historic practice and statute, any one currently seated would most likely be allowed to complete their term.

    So much for what is legal now for what is right. Attention legislators: those are NOT your seats. They belong to the citizens of the district that you are privileged to represent, please do not embarrass yourself, your family or our state by pretending you have some inherent right to remain in office. If you believe in representative democracy than you must accept that the people in that district should have the right to elect the person that represents them. If you find yourself out of the district you represent, resign and let them choose a new person from the district.

    Redistricting has always been and will always be painful for the politicians and the public. If you believe in the doctrine of “one person, one vote” then go with the numbers and let the chips fall where they may.

  3. In the federal government, each state is given two senators. Why is it that each county doesn’t have two state senators and why are counties that contribute the most in mineral revenue not be able to enjoy the benefit of their contribution? We are not gerrymandered by the Democrats and Republicans but by the haves and the have nots.

  4. Big Horn, washer key and Hot Springs Counties have lost population. The are doing all they can to not loose Representatives. With Laramie County’s growth the additional representatives should come from the shrinking counties. Charlie Scott needs to end his political career and stop slobbering all over the paperwork.

  5. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I don’t feel overly represented by anyone in the Legislature. Fiddling with arrangement of the deck chairs won’t bring new ideas & fresh perspectives to the body. Sign me up for the real change, Mr. Vanderhoff.

  6. Regional partisanship often provides the most interesting political fights in Wyoming. It’s such a big state and so many of its Census blocks contain few residents.

    Rep. Zwonitzer’s argument is a valid one, particularly in light of population growth trends from Denver north. Cheyenne will continue to grow. The Legislature will have to make this change eventually. Perhaps the committee should figure it out this year rather than in 10.

  7. I wish we could do redistricting by artificial intelligence. Give it some rules, like equal population in each district, keeping districts compact and contiguous, following existing political and natural boundaries, and making total party representation match previous individual voter preferences. Obviously these rules could not all be met simultaneously. They would have to be assigned prioritites. Let the legislature argue about the priorities, and agree to abide by the results.

  8. If ever a state should have a Unicameral Legislature it’s Wyoming which has way too many representatives for the number of people.

    1. Unicameral legislatures have this nasty habit of further concentrating political power.
      What Wyoming and the rest of the nation need instead is a proliferation of newer more diverse more focussed political parties. The monolithic Two Party system at the national level is a failure… constantly stalemating like two Sumo wrestlers whose feet are cemented into the floor. Nothing gets done in the endless cycles of obstruction and deflections.
      Here in Wyoming we have the opposite problem by having a single dominant party with a guaranteed Super-majority for every vote, while the minority party and the lesser fringe parties have little clout. Sure the big fat ruling party is all in the same family , but nobody does food fights , brawls , or backstabs better than your own family.
      I recall the day c. 1990 the receptionist at the Casper Star Tribune hollered into the news room ” who wants to take the call from the Republican Party person?” and a reporter hollered back ” which Republican Party … we got four of them …” ( Which I note is still mostly true today )
      Wyoming needs to subdivide the Republicans into tribes. Mainstream GOP and the Social Conservatives at the least. We need an authentic consolidated Libertarian party. More than almost any other state Wyoming desperately needs a viable Green Party . Even the Dems could even split into two tribes… Blue Buffalo mainstream populists and Social Democrat progressives.
      With no single party having majority control, everything would come down to working through the issues by collaboration , compromise, and consensus. More parliamentary than lockstep primacy.

      But of course I’m dreaming here …