The last time the Wyoming Legislature drew its district boundaries, 10 years ago, a bunch of prisoners who couldn’t even vote helped save the jobs of two incumbent state senators.
That’s not how redistricting is supposed to work. It is, however, an egregious example of gerrymandering, the art of manipulating electoral boundaries and carving up constituencies to gain political advantage.
It’s also a good reminder to voters that as the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee begins to work on its latest redistricting plan, the public must keep a keen eye on the endeavor. Fair elections are at stake.
In 2011, it appeared that veteran Republican lawmakers Curt Meier of LaGrange and Wayne Johnson of Cheyenne would be placed in the same Senate district, forcing a face off in the following year’s primary. At least one would lose his seat to redrawn lines.
But Meier presented a plan: If the boundaries for Johnson’s Senate District 6 could be changed to snake up the Wyoming-Nebraska border for 60 miles and include the sizable population of the medium-security prison in Torrington, he and Johnson could stay in separate districts.
His “fix” didn’t pass the smell test for many lawmakers, but it was ultimately approved by the Legislature and both men were re-elected. Meier is now the state treasurer. Johnson, who did not seek another term in 2016, died in 2020.
Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne), co-chairman of the Corporations committee, doesn’t want to see any allegations of gerrymandering “or really weird squiggly lines [drawn] to protect anyone,” he said during an Equality State Policy Center online forum on redistricting last Thursday.
“It’s about the people,” he added. That includes honoring the principle of one man, one vote enshrined in the 14th Amendment.
Census numbers illustrate that Wyoming’s population continues to shift away from rural areas into the state’s relatively few towns and cities. The Legislature’s House and Senate districts must reflect those changes. Each is allowed a deviation of only plus or minus 5% of the average district’s population.
Before a federal court threw it out in 1992, Wyoming’s redistricting plan was pretty simple. Each of the 23 counties was entitled to a certain amount of House and Senate districts based upon its share of the population. Multiple legislators could be chosen to represent a district. After the court called foul, that system was scrapped in favor of distinct, single-member districts.
The Legislature is expected this go around to retain its policy of having two House districts “nested” inside each Senate district. The House has 60 members and the Senate has 30, a split that’s likely to be maintained, although Zwonitzer said he’ll offer a plan that would reduce the numbers to 52 and 26.
At that size, he said, district boundaries “could be drawn almost perfectly along county lines.” But it’s difficult to imagine that incumbents who have the final say would be willing to adopt a plan that axes a dozen seats.
“I have to have enough legislators who will vote for the plan,” Zwonitzer admitted. “So that’s the conundrum.”
The Corporations committee will begin dividing the state into regions for redistricting at its Sept. 2-3 meeting in Sheridan. In addition to a district’s population numbers, other considerations are geography and “commonalities” — the characteristics that tie people together — will be considered, along with raw district headcounts. The federal courts generally look at shared interests by membership in a political community, including a county or city.
In Wyoming’s current redistricting scheme, some senators represent constituents in as many as five counties. It’s difficult to see how people residing in some of these huge, sweeping areas share commonalities.
So it’s important that whenever the Legislature approves squiggly lines on the state map, it can justify its work to judges. It won’t benefit Wyoming if lawmakers spend the next several months crafting a redistricting map that is overturned in court.
“In the back of our minds, we don’t want to get sued,” Zwonitzer said. “So if communities of interest come forward, we’re going to make sure we have a lot of documentation, a lot of local buy-in [so] we can make a good case.”
Ben Williams, who manages redistricting for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said avoiding litigation is a high priority of lawmakers throughout the country.
“It’s hard for me to think of an area of public policy that’s more litigious than this,” Williams said. “Legislators get sued so much, the ones who don’t get sued really brag about it. … North Carolina gets sued about every six months over some aspect of redistricting.
“We want to be fair and we want to be equitable, and we definitely don’t want to be sued and be in court in five years like a lot of other states are,” Zwonitzer said. “We’ve got to get it right the first time.”
To that end, he added that while the committee may select one redistricting plan for the bill it will approve on Dec. 1, it may also offer two or three alternative plans for lawmakers to consider when the measure is presented to the entire Legislature.
“If we just say ‘take it or leave it,’ that’s a pretty big risk,” Zwonitzer said. “We don’t want to see a lot of amendments on the floor, because that’s when bad things can happen.”
One of the worst would be if a plan hatched by the Wyoming Republican Party’s self-appointed Redistricting Committee gets any traction. Two members floated it by the Joint Corporations panel last week.
Carbon County GOP Chairman Joey Correnti and his Sheridan County counterpart, Bryan Miller, explained that they believe the number of state senators should be decreased from 30 to 23 — one from each county.
The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly rejected as unconstitutional county-based plans that create huge district-to-district population — and thus political representation — disparities. If adopted, the Wyoming GOP’s scheme would give Niobrara County — which has fewer than 2,500 residents — equal political power to Laramie County with its 100,000-plus population.
“This falls apart on its face, and why do you waste our time with this?” a frustrated Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) asked during the meeting. “Why do you waste our time with this? Just stop.”
Wyoming League of Women Voters’ lobbyist Marguerite Herman told the ESPC audience that without the proper balance in a district’s population, “representative government isn’t going to work.”
Herman said while Case attempted to spike the State Republican Party’s argument for more rural representation, she added, “I don’t know if the conversation is dead yet.”
I’m sure it’s not, and that scares me. Correnti and Miller have plenty of rural legislators who will be happy to trot out their plan every step of the way. A lot of them won’t care in the slightest that the state would be laughed out of court if they approved this nonsense.
The Wyoming GOP’s extreme right-wing leadership isn’t satisfied that Republicans hold 28 out of 30 Senate seats. Might as well see if they can comb out some “Republican in name only” city slickers and put in their own kind.
It would be an asinine abuse of power.