Sen. Bo Biteman (R-Ranchester) during the 2022 Wyoming Legislature. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

Two-thirds of Wyoming’s state senators are begging to get sued over their redistricting plan.

I believe they’ll get their wish, at considerable expense to the state.

Opinion

I’m not sure what word best describes their decision to scrap six months of work by the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee at the last minute and start over. “Sloppy,” “irresponsible,” “arrogant” and “inept” all come to mind.

Heck, let’s go with all four.

No gathering of the Legislature goes by without lawmakers telling a few whoppers. One of my favorites came from the lips of Sen. Bo Biteman (R-Ranchester), in response to critics who claim his new redistricting map is unconstitutional and a lawsuit waiting to happen.

“I think any sane judge would see what we’re doing and say, ‘You guys did a good job,’” Biteman said.

The problem is that competent legislators are perfectly capable of submitting a plan that doesn’t have obvious errors. Biteman made no attempt to fix them. “So what, we thought it was close enough” is not a winning argument in any court.

Legislative redistricting is serious stuff, not a time for lawmakers to act in their own best interest. Pretending they can slap together a map overnight that meets the constitutional mandate to redraw House and Senate boundaries to accurately reflect population changes since the last U.S. Census shows little respect for their constituents or the highest law in the land.

That’s precisely what happened during the next-to-last reading of House Bill 100 – Redistricting of the Legislature in the Senate. The bill passed the House 54-6 and had the unanimous support of the Senate Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee.

I get it: The Senate didn’t like the addition of three legislators, bringing the total to 93 in what’s been dubbed the “62-31 plan.” The senators decided to substitute a map that kept the current 60 House and 30 Senate members.

But there’s a valid reason why the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee added, and the House endorsed, the new seats and it wasn’t to see the Senate fret about how to cram another desk into its already tight quarters. (Well, maybe that did factor in a bit. We’d all love to see them build a double-decker desk). 

The Joint Corporations Committee, which started work last August, couldn’t make a 60-30 split work and still adhere to the Constitution’s “one person, one vote” principle.

To determine how many residents are in the mathematically “ideal” House district, the state’s total population is divided by the number of districts. In a 60-member House, each legislator should represent about 9,600 people.

Federal courts allow some latitude in meeting that number when the Legislature redraws boundaries. A district must be no more than 5% above or below the ideal size. This is known as the allowable “maximum deviation,” which is both the judicial standard and a great name for a heavy metal band.

The joint committee found its main challenge to be a significant shift in population from rural counties to cities like Cheyenne and Casper. In vast areas like the Bighorn Basin, with limitations due to mountains and fewer residents, the only way to keep districts within the acceptable range was to add two House seats and one in the Senate.

The House amended its version of HB 100 to put two districts in Sheridan and Goshen counties out of compliance, but Senate Corporations fixed those problems. Heading to the full Senate, with those final issues resolved, the Legislature’s redistricting work was almost done.

That’s when the map ran into the “Biteman buzzsaw.” Changing the plan back to 60-30 with his map, the senator claimed, would leave only a single district out of compliance, by a mere 446 residents.

Uh, no. That’s the way Biteman sold his changes to the Senate, which approved the new map 20-10 the next day. He derided opponents for their obsession over compliance, arguing they “are making perfect the enemy of the good.”

So if the Senate’s map is out of deviation and disregards communities of interest, then how did it overwhelmingly pass? 

Kerry drake

But the Legislative Service Office’s review found the Senate’s version has six House and three Senate districts beyond the maximum deviation. It also eliminates the extra House district Laramie County earned by its nearly 10% population increase.

The Senate’s unconstitutional plan isn’t going to fly in the House, so now the bill goes before a joint conference committee. The point of that is to find a compromise, and could take the process back to square one. Everytime lawmakers tweak the plan it requires the state’s 23 county clerks to do more work.

The officials have spent hundreds of hours working with the public and local lawmakers to create legislative districts that are both the right size and combine “communities of interest,” which in the court’s view is another fundamental element of redistricting. 

These are neighborhoods, communities, or groups of people who have common policy concerns and would benefit from being maintained in a single district. For example, federal law requires that the majority of tribal members in the Wind River Indian Reservation must be in the same district.

The Legislature gets to decide where lines are drawn in areas where communities of interest are guiding redistricting principles, but not protected by laws.

Since 2002, Rock River in northern Albany County has been gerrymandered into a district that stretches south to Encampment and west to Sweetwater County. Rock River residents asked to be put in a Laramie district that better aligns with their common interests, which the House did. Biteman’s map ignores that reasonable request.

So if the Senate’s map is out of deviation and disregards communities of interest, then how did it overwhelmingly pass?  

Sen. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne) said it’s because the Senate’s map “ensures the greatest likelihood of success for all of us to come back. It is self-serving.”

Nethercott isn’t ok with that, but many of her colleagues are. “This protects me, protects my Senate district and enhances my preference for [60-30],” said Sen. Tim Salazar (R-Riverton).

He is supposed to represent the people of Senate District 26, not the Senate District of Salazar. 

The redistricting map as drawn in Sen. Bo Biteman’s (R-Ranchester) amendment. It would keep the Senate at 30 lawmakers. (Screenshot/Legislative Service Office)

So, where does the Legislature go from here? Redistricting isn’t a suggestion, it’s required by the U.S. Constitution.

Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) predicted the state will “absolutely” get sued, probably by multiple plaintiffs who claim they are underrepresented in a 60-30 plan.

If the state loses such a lawsuit, the court can draw the district boundaries or assign the task to an independent third party. If lawmakers want to remain in control, they have this week to do so, or come back in a special session and try again.

There may be enough House members to support a 60-30 plan, but it would likely change districts so much that it would require all senators to run in 2022, not just the half now up for re-election.

How do you think that would go over in a body that has fought tooth-and-nail to keep any sitting legislator from running against another incumbent in the primary?

I don’t pretend to know how this dilemma will be resolved, but it requires officials who realize they can’t just sign-off on a plan they know will get the state sued, put Wyoming’s future in the hands of the state’s attorney general to defend, and walk away.

I know we have legislators capable of leading everyone to a winning compromise, the kind German politician Ludwig Erhard once described as “the art of dividing a cake in such a way that everyone believes he has the biggest piece.”

Ladies and gentlemen, please use your knives judiciously — and not on each other.

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. Self serving is exactly what this entire body is about. It is shameful that they don’t want to do what they are elected to do, represent the people who elected them. Well the state will hopefully continue to grow and yes the populations of the larger communities will continue to expand. The rural folkes need to under stand that we all live in this state and the good ole boy network is going away. It is time to have responsible leadership and fair representation.

  2. Look what the house plan does to eastern Sheridan County. Why are they being made to pay for problems in the basin and Cheyenne? If I’d been served for 30 years by John Schiffer and Dave Kinskey to be suddenly told my senator was now Troy McKeown I’d be miffed too. Plus you now have two counties with split ballots.

  3. As noted in the article, the legislators are begging to be sued. They apparently haven’t realized that because redistricting is a federal constitutional/civil rights issue, successful plaintiffs can recover their legal fees. The state ended up paying the lawyers for BOTH sides back in the 1991 reapportionment lawsuit. Does that sound like fiscal responsibility?