Three decades ago, when a federal court forced Wyoming to stop electing its state lawmakers by counties and switch to single-member districts, I saw positive changes ahead.
I wasn’t alone. Many voters and politicians liked the head-to-head matchups better than the at-large system. The change reflected the U.S. Constitution’s “one man, one vote” principle. It made more sense to elect one senator and one representative from separate districts, rather than choosing multiple lawmakers in a county.
Single-member district advocates hoped the new system would lead to more competitive races, and perhaps more diversity.
It didn’t happen. In the 2020 general election, nine of 15 Senate winners were unopposed. Thirty-seven of the 60 House races had one candidate.
The numbers of both women and Democrats have also dwindled. In the final multi-member district election in 1990, one-third of successful candidates were female. Now, only 18% of state lawmakers are women.
Democrats held 10 of 30 Senate seats and 22 of 64 Senate seats in 1990. Today, only two of the 30 state senators are Democrats. The party has seven of the 60 House seats. The Republican Party rules.
I’m not suggesting that single-member districts are solely responsible for these declines. Many factors impact elections.
Yet I wonder if those trends might change to some degree if Wyoming adopted a hybrid system that allowed both single- and multi-member districts.
It’s not likely to happen. Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats three-to-one, and there are myriad reasons why it might be difficult to recruit women candidates. The fact is that both the House and Senate are controlled by Republican men, and there’s no incentive for them to change the status quo.
President John Adams once described the ideal state legislature as “an exact Portrait, in Miniature, of the People at large, as it should think, feel, reason and act like them.” How does Wyoming attain such balance if women, who comprise 49% of the state’s residents, are a small minority in the Legislature?
I agree with one influential GOP state lawmaker that multi-member districts should be explored during the Legislature’s redistricting process, which is based on U.S. Census data and occurs every 10 years. Lawmakers must complete their reapportionment by the end of the budget session next March so it can be implemented in time for the 2022 elections.
Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander), a member and former co-chairman of the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee, thinks some form of multi-member districts might lead to a more diverse Legislature.
Case noted that the old system sometimes allowed for up to five House members chosen at-large to represent all of Fremont County. “We always managed to elect some Democrats,” he said, even though about six of every 10 voters were Republicans.
“If you allow for multi-member districts, then Democrats can kind of pull behind one candidate to be in the top five,” Case said. “If you break it down district-by-district, there’s less chance of that happening.”
Case is a conservative Republican, even though he was labeled as the “RINO of the Month” for May by the anonymous, extreme-right website wyorino.com. He likes to work on civil libertarian issues with Democrats like Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss of Laramie, but it’s absurd to call him a “Republican in name only.”
In Wyoming politics today, Case said, “Nuances aren’t respected; everything is black-and-white.” He noted that far-right Republicans largely represent huge rural single-member districts.
“There aren’t very many of them. They’re less than a third of the Legislature,” he noted. “That faction of the Republican Party shouldn’t be driving the bus. They don’t represent the majority. We just have to call them out, quit being afraid and stand up to them.”
Case also thinks more women might become candidates in multi-member districts, because they likely would be in less contentious races instead of “all-out war.”
A case in point is former Rep. Rosie Berger (R-Sheridan), who was poised to become House speaker in 2016 before supporters of her GOP primary opponent, Bo Biteman of Ranchester, mailed voters flyers that falsely accused her of being anti-gun and pro-gay-rights. Without time to respond, Berger lost that bitter House race to Biteman, who is now in the state Senate.
“That’s kind of how it’s evolved,” Case said. “Politics has gotten nastier. Perhaps we could soften it.”
The trend of diminishing female representation was foreseen in 1999, when University of Wyoming political science professors Michael Horan and Jim King studied how the move to single-member districts resulted in fewer women in the Legislature.
Multi-member district elections are “something of a free-for-all where each candidate emphasizes his/her own strengths, rather than his/her opponent’s weaknesses [in single-member districts],” the professors wrote.
The way most states elect legislative candidates isn’t very good for women, according to a January 2020 article on political website FiveThirtyEight.
“There’s a host of research suggesting that in multi-member districts, more women might be encouraged to run and more women might win,” wrote authors Meredith Conroy and Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux. “For a country that still elects three times more men than women to state legislatures, multi-member districts might be a simple trick to help balance the scales — if only it weren’t going out of style.”
Case said while federal courts have ruled solely multi-member districts unconstitutional, it’s legal to use them in combination with single-member districts. Ten states still do precisely that.
He suggested that Senate districts could remain as they are now, but multiple candidates could be chosen in combined House districts. To expand the idea, he said Senate districts in large, rural areas like northeast Wyoming could be combined to form “super-districts,” where voters could choose multiple senators.
The problem, of course, is that current lawmakers are in charge of redistricting, and most incumbents would likely be reluctant to change a system that helped put them in the Legislature. They have a vested interest in the outcome.
The move to incorporate partial multi-member districts could occur in the third or fourth election cycle after the Legislature adopts a redistricting plan that would sunset, Case said, which would give candidates and the public a chance to plan for the change.
“That would be a fascinating way to do it, because right now people are looking at their political futures,” Case said. “They’re looking at the next election, so they’re not going to vote to make any changes. I’m trying to think outside of the box on this.”
It’s a move to seriously consider, and I hope the Corporations committee takes it up. The concept deserves a fair hearing to let the public have a voice in the decision-making process. I for one would like to hear from voters, not just legislators who favor the current system because it helped them win.