Lawmakers began the process of redrawing the state’s legislative districts Monday, setting into motion a reimagining of the electoral map that could have significant implications on the makeup of the 67th Wyoming Legislature when it convenes in Cheyenne in 2023.
Armed with updated numbers from the Census Bureau released last week, members of the Joint Committee on Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions formally approved a list of “guiding principles” for the committee to follow as it begins to evaluate how communities across the state have changed in the past decade.
Those principles will serve as a compass for the committee as it draws new boundaries for Wyoming’s 60 House and 30 Senate districts to accommodate population changes that occurred in the state over the last decade.
Lawmakers also appropriated $40,000 to establish an online portal for gathering public input on the subject.
WyoFile examines how the process will play out.
Wyoming’s lawmakers have yet to establish concrete redistricting policy, however, the guiding principles established this week will shape everything from how lawmakers solicit constituent feedback to the actual process of drawing district lines, which will be undertaken on a region-by-region basis.
The Legislature is required to do its best to keep “like” communities together, allocating a prescribed average of residents to each district. In some circumstances, lawmakers can deviate from the population of Wyoming’s largest district by up to 10%, according to a Monday memo from the Legislative Service Office, and still comply with the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Simply having the requisite number of people is no guarantee that a district will ultimately be approved, however. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the landmark 2016 election case Evenwel v. Abbott affirmed district limits cannot be arbitrary, and must meet criteria that preserve “the integrity of political subdivisions, [maintain] communities of interest, and [create] geographic compactness.”
Those principles can be, and have been, evaluated by a number of guidelines, be it distinct neighborhoods (a heavily Hispanic community, for example) or geographic features (Jackson Hole, the Bighorn Basin). But in Wyoming, the guidelines can have less-obvious characteristics, like a population actually capable of yielding a candidate to run for office. Following the 1990 census, one legislative district in Sheridan County did not have a candidate on the ballot for a statehouse seat until right before the filing deadline, Sen. Charlie Scott (R-Casper) told committee members.
“I do think that the current House districts are a bit of a problem,” he said. “We have consistently had recruitment problems with getting a candidate [to run].”
Who will be impacted most?
To keep those like communities together, lawmakers will seek to define districts within eight to nine distinct regions made up of counties bearing similar social and economic characteristics.
While larger counties like Natrona and Laramie Counties are regions unto themselves, for example, smaller counties like Hot Springs, Washakie and Big Horn Counties will likely be evaluated as part of the same region, and therefore more likely to share representation with a neighboring county.
In the past, this approach has produced districts like Wyoming Senate Districts 1, 14 and 16, each of which cover sparsely populated regions in three distinct counties. Some, like Wyoming Senate District 20, cover as many as four different counties to encompass the number of citizens necessary to meet the minimum population required by law.
In the coming months, lawmakers said they will work to mirror district boundaries with county lines “as much as possible,” Senate Corporations Committee chairman Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) said Monday. However, the committee’s loftier goals of keeping similar communities together within one single district, lawmakers admitted, could face challenges from recent population changes, even with some leeway written into the number of citizens each district can have.
While more urban counties like Natrona and Laramie saw sharp population increases since the last census, particularly in the Casper suburbs, populations shrank in most Wyoming counties. Park County, which grew by 1,200 residents in the recent census, fell roughly 1,000 people short of meriting its own seat, meaning residents of the Bighorn Basin will likely need to share a Senate district with residents in the northwestern reaches of Natrona County, Scott told committee members. Some, like Sweetwater, Carbon and Sublette Counties, saw population losses equivalent to one-fifth of the minimum necessary to complete a single House district just one decade after each reported periods of growth, according to census data.
“We’ve lost 1,500 people,” Sublette County Clerk Mary Lankford told the committee. “We are needing friends as opposed to having friends this time. We’ve got some opportunity in northern Sublette County that we can negotiate some population, but I think we have an opportunity to work within our region. Geographically it works well. Demographically, it’s a challenge, but I think we have a good enough understanding of our communities to make it work. We may have to make some friends to the south”
The 2020 census also evaluated approximately 25,000 fewer census “blocks” — or distinct areas of population — in the state than the 2010 census, giving map drawers less flexibility to allocate populations than they did a decade ago.
Wyoming’s demographics have shifted as well. According to an analysis of census numbers developed by the Wyoming Department of Administration and Information last week, Wyoming’s minority population grew by more than 34% over the last decade, far outpacing the state’s 2.3% growth rate.
“[The impact] is very dependent on the geographic concentration of the minority growth,” Rep. Mike Yin (D-Jackson), wrote in a text message. “If the growth is spread out evenly, then it will not have as much of an impact on lines vs. if the growth was concentrated in specific areas.”
The populations of Wyoming’s prisons — which are counted in the census for redistricting purposes — also fluctuated, according to data provided by the Wyoming Department of Corrections. While some grew and others shrank between April 2010 and April 2020 (when the counts took place), the change in each facility did not exceed 100 persons in any case, according to a WyoFile analysis of prison population data.
However, lawmakers have acknowledged prisons have been used in past redistricting efforts (particularly in Laramie County’s Senate District 6) to help bolster population counts with hundreds of Wyoming residents who are often ineligible to vote.
Rigging a district’s lines to benefit a politician or party — often referred to as “gerrymandering” — will factor into county clerks’ decision-making processes, Fremont County Clerk Julie Freese told committee members. Clerks often play a critical advisory role for lawmakers in drawing maps that comply with federal law at the local level.
“With all the election integrity stuff that’s been going on in the nation that has now kind of hit our state too, we will look at things,” Freese said. “We’ve talked about gerrymandering a little bit here, but that’s one eye that this group will not take.”
Few changes expected
Though the committee resolved to keep the Legislature at its current size — 30 Senate seats, 60 House seats — the committee briefly toyed with the idea of changing the allocation of members to gain clearer representation for the state’s more sparsely populated communities. Rock River, for example, sits nearly 170 miles away from the community of Rock Springs, yet both sit within House District 47.
However, the idea was forgotten following concerns by chairman Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne) that the House Chamber in the Wyoming State Capitol would be too small to accommodate more than 60 desks. Despite population changes, lawmakers said they believed they could create a plan that would have little impact on the current balance of power in the Legislature.
“Johnson County makes sense as a single House District,” Driskill said after the meeting. “Sheridan County makes sense with three House members. They could do whatever they want and not have to share.”
Others, meanwhile, pushed for changes to increase the influence of rural communities in the Legislature.
On Monday, Carbon County Republican Party Chairman Joey Correnti and Sheridan County Republican Party Chairman Bryan Miller presented a state party-sanctioned proposal to reduce the number of senators from its current total of 30 to just 23 — one per county — in an effort they said was intended to mirror language set forth in the U.S. Constitution. That effort would also give voters in places like Niobrara County,population 2,467, the same political power as Laramie County, which accounts for 100,512 people, or roughly one-sixth of the state’s population.
Though numerous federal court cases have invalidated similar state-level plans, Correnti told lawmakers the Wyoming GOP did not believe judicial opinions changed the language or intent of the original language of the U.S. Constitution — counter to the opinion of Wyoming lawmakers and the Supreme Court of the United States itself.
“Why do you waste our time with this,” Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) said following their presentation. “Why do you waste our time? Just stop.”