The most recent redistricting process in Wyoming told us a lot about what our state is concerned about.
For those unfamiliar, the Wyoming Constitution requires that the Legislature pass a redistricting bill every 10 years. This bill draws new lines for legislative districts and determines how to divide legislative representation around the state. This year’s process was particularly difficult.
To start, the census data that the committee uses for redistricting was late in arriving. This shortened the time for consideration of where and how to draw the legislative lines. Accordingly, there was less opportunity to solicit input and ensure that communities had buy-in on how districts were drawn. This issue was compounded by the redistricting committee’s tendency to adopt major changes to the proposed map at every meeting. This further prevented the committee from carefully considering district lines. Much of that work therefore occurred during the legislative session, when legislator attention is divided and careful consideration is difficult.
Lawmakers also struggled to reach consensus. This is revealing when it comes to legislator priorities. Some legislators had concerns about keeping communities whole and ensuring that legislative districts met constitutional requirements. Some also had concerns around protecting existing legislators. Some raised questions about whether the Legislature should even bother trying to make legislative districts equal in population or whether they should draw district lines based on something else. Fortunately, the Legislature correctly decided to follow the U.S. Constitution and, with a couple notable exceptions, draw legislative districts that were roughly equal in population.
Above all else, the redistricting process this year revealed the anxieties of rural Wyoming. Some of these anxieties are well founded and understandable. Wyoming’s population is getting more concentrated in urban areas. This means more representation is moving toward cities and away from rural areas. This can cause problems in drawing district lines. Much of the problem with the redistricting process came from the challenge of assembling shrinking rural populations into districts that made sense in both geographic and community terms. As rural communities get smaller, rural districts must get larger to ensure that legislative districts are roughly equal in population. This is hard to do when also ensuring that districts avoid dividing groups with common interests while also remaining geographically compact.
Rural areas also expressed a great desire not to be combined with urban areas. Rural areas fear that, if rural and urban populations are combined, city-based populations will dilute or overwhelm their votes. However, this limits the way the Legislature can draw districts and can result in awkwardly shaped or overly large districts. For example, one House district runs from the intersection of Albany and Platte counties in one corner to Flaming Gorge in the other. As the crow flies, the distance is over 200 miles. Google Maps estimates the drive time from one corner of the district to the other as four and a half hours. It is hard to picture one person being able to effectively represent that entire area and its population’s varying needs or desires.
This process is not likely to get easier the next time around. Southeast Wyoming — and Cheyenne in particular — is poised to grow. With several development projects in the works, proximity to the Front Range and a location that is attractive for business relocation, the growth train is already in motion for southeast Wyoming. The question is whether the rest of the state will move in the same direction — or if it even wants to.
We in Wyoming are very protective of our state’s culture. We have all heard complaints about people moving from out of state and worries about losing the flavor of small-town life. However, if rural areas in Wyoming do not grow, they are on the path of declining influence and political representation. Even though we picture Wyoming as a rural state, most of our population lives in or around the few largest cities. If you add up the populations of Wyoming’s 10 largest cities, they account for approximately 48% of our state’s population. When you factor in the people who live immediately adjacent to but not inside those city limits, the 10 largest cities account for well over half of our population.
This trend will only get more pronounced if rural areas remain resistant to growth. When redistricting is again required in 10 years, it is easy to imagine far larger numbers of legislative districts having to move to cities at the expense of rural areas.
If rural areas in Wyoming want to maintain their influence, they have one choice: grow. Anything else puts them at risk of being left behind.