Gov. Mark Gordon has yet to sign the Legislature’s redistricting bill, which lawmakers passed less than two hours before their Friday deadline following months of contentious negotiation, saying he will give the attorney general a chance to review it first.
The bill, known as a “62-31” plan, adds two lawmakers to Wyoming’s House and one to the Senate to account for population growth. But the final version includes several districts that are out of “deviation,” which means they fall out of legally permissible district proportions. This puts the state at risk of legal challenges.
Critics say it’s a dangerous gamble for the state and that lawmakers wasted precious time during the session that could have been used to produce a better plan.
How we got here
After six months of interim work, the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee settled on a draft plan just a few days before the session began. The House and Senate then worked up their own versions.
The challenge facing them entailed balancing deviation with input from the public, county clerks, lawmakers and other officials. In a mathematically ideal plan, every district would have the same number of voters. But because of geography, the distribution of groups with common interests, cultural history and other considerations, that ideal is rarely achievable. Thus, redistrictors are allowed to deviate from the mathematical ideal, placing more voters in some districts and fewer in others. Courts have held, however, that deviations of more than 5% above or below of the mathematical ideal violate the constitutional principle of one person, one vote.
Despite that, both the House and the Senate passed versions of the bill with districts that were out of deviation. Efforts in both chambers attempted to make the math pencil out. Ultimately, however, lawmakers passed a final map with several districts that fall out of the acceptable level.
Six districts in the final map are out of deviation, all of which are in Sheridan and Johnson counties. They include House Districts 29, 30, 40, 51 and Senate Districts 21 and 22. Because those districts’ deviations are above the 5% leeway courts have given, voters in those areas are underrepresented.
House District 40 is the most out of deviation at 6.26% more residents than the mathematical ideal, according to the Legislative Service Office. It encompasses all of Johnson County, and portions of eastern and southern Sheridan County, including the communities of Arvada, Clearmont, Banner and Story. House District 30 is on the lowest end of districts out of deviation at 5.42%. That district includes central Sheridan County as well as the outskirts and southeastern neighborhoods of the City of Sheridan.
‘Busy debating non issues’
After the House and Senate failed to agree on a bill, a joint conference committee was convened to negotiate a passable version. House Speaker Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) appointed Reps. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne), Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) and himself to the committee, while Senate President Dan Dockstader (R-Afton) selected Sens. Bill Landen (R-Casper), Ed Cooper (R-Ten Sleep), and Dave Kinskey (R-Sheridan).
The House had passed a 62-31 version of the bill, which the Senate amended to a 60-30 version before passing it. It didn’t take the conference committee long to decide to work the House’s version that added lawmakers. That vote occurred Tuesday.
Friday, the committee voted on several amendments before bringing a final map back to both chambers. The most significant changes were made to Laramie, Natrona, Sheridan and Johnson counties. In Casper, that involved making adjustments to Senate Districts 27 and 28 to reflect communities of interest, according to Landen. The committee also decided to keep Albany County whole — it still doesn’t share representation with any other county.
Despite the committee pulling off the difficult task of reconciling two very different maps, many lawmakers were unhappy with the final product that was brought back to them.
Rep. Chuck Gray (R-Casper) criticized the way the conference committee conducted its business.
“Not once through this entire process did we see this map […] in the conference committee,” Gray said on the House floor before voting against it.
Rep. Landon Brown (R-Cheyenne) said he would vote in favor of the bill, but he wished it would have taken priority over other issues and been worked earlier in the session instead of hours before deadline.
“Instead we were busy debating guns. We were busy debating abortion. We were busy debating non issues in this state instead of our constitutional obligations,” Brown said.
Down the hall in the other chamber, Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) said he couldn’t support the bill because of its deviation.
“If we don’t get the job done, the courts will be forced to do it,” fellow Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper) pointed out.
The House voted 44-12 with four excused in favor of the bill. It had a more narrow victory in the Senate with a 17-12 vote, one excused.
It is not yet clear how many ballot splits the new map creates, according to Malcolm Ervin, Platte County Clerk and president of the County Clerks’ Association of Wyoming. A split occurs when a legislative map strays from other boundaries, such as a school or conservation district. Throughout the redistricting process, the association did not take a position on whether to add lawmakers, but it did ask the Legislature to support whichever plan would cause the fewest splits. Split ballots can drive up election costs and cause confusion for both voters and election workers.
Now that the Legislature has finished its role in the redistricting process, Ervin said, clerks will get to work creating precinct lines, which could help clean up splits. Clerks have until May 3, according to state statute, to complete such a task. Ervin told WyoFile the map did appear to be an improvement at this point.
“This map does seem to be cleaner, for election administration, than the currently enacted version adopted in 2012,” Ervin said.
The bill currently awaits the signature of Gov. Mark Gordon.
“The Governor has not made a determination, as he is still awaiting the Attorney General’s review of the redistricting bill,” Michael Pearlman, Gordon’s communications director, told WyoFile.
In an unusual move, the bill includes “findings,” or language explaining why legislators passed a map out of deviation.
“The deviations in population between legislative districts in this act are required to recognize county boundaries, communities of interest, common economic interests and historical representative practices in Wyoming,” according to the bill. The findings were included to lay the groundwork for a potential future defense of the plan in court, according to Kinskey.
Should the final map end up in court, the Legislature put aside $500,000 in the special contingency fund, which could be used to cover any litigation costs.