On Friday, the state cleared the final hurdle in its redistricting process when the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the plan.
I wish I could say that state was Wyoming, but it was Idaho.
On the same day, the Equality State’s redistricting plan passed a milestone of its own when a joint legislative committee approved it.
Watching the final hour of the panel’s six-month effort, I was struck by how obviously exhausted, frustrated and downright angry it left some legislators and observers.
Those feelings will likely be repeated as the full 90-member Wyoming Legislature tackles the complex problems of redrawing its own district boundaries. Meanwhile, any legal challenges to the constitutionality of lawmakers’ work may not be resolved by the courts for years.
Why has this same drama unfolded so differently in the Capitol halls of Cheyenne and Boise?
There’s one fundamental difference: A bipartisan commission, instead of the Legislature, handles Idaho’s redistricting.
In its current form, Wyoming’s new plan only has one district with two sitting lawmakers, setting the stage for an incumbent v. incumbent primary race. While some might point to that as a strength of the Wyoming process, it actually demonstrates why the system is flawed.
Jack Mueller of Cheyenne, a keen observer of the redistricting process, spelled out why lawmakers have no business protecting people’s seats. It’s the people’s Legislature, not their own.
“One of the first things I heard when this committee started last August was, ‘We’re not going to pay any attention to where current legislators live,’” Mueller testified. “And for the last half-hour, you have sat here trying to figure out where legislators live.”
Once per decade, U.S. census data is used to redraw legislative district boundaries to reflect population shifts throughout the state. No matter how legislative staff crunched the numbers, one problem area remained in Laramie County.
Despite that problem, the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee approved House Bill 100 – Redistricting of the Legislature by a vote of 11-3. If the bill passes in its current form, House District 42, now represented by Rep. Jim Blackburn, will also be the residence of Rep. Clarence Styvar, who represents HD 12.
While some committee members fretted about one of the legislators losing his seat, Sen. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne) noted that as the state’s largest county with over 100,000 residents, Laramie County is nearly impossible to carve up without major changes for current lawmakers.
Two GOP incumbent senators, Stephan Pappas (SD 7) and Affie Ellis (SD 8) live only a few blocks from each other in the capital city. The redistricting plan that emerged after public meetings kept the lawmakers in their own districts, but it came at the expense of others.
Two House districts are “nested” inside each Senate district.
If panel members weren’t focusing on the potential Blackburn-Styvar race, Nethercott said, they would be talking about the political future for Ellis and Pappas.
In fact, in one iteration of the redistricting map, three Republican senators — Ellis, Pappas and Sen. Lynn Hutchings in SD 5 — would have all been in the same district.
The current Legislature has 60 House and 30 Senate members. The latest redistricting plan would add three seats to make the split 62-31. When the committee initially adopted the change last month, the plan would have put 16 incumbents in competitive primaries. Now, only Blackburn and Styvar remain in that dreaded pool.
One reason redistricting is so contentious in Wyoming, where legislators write the plan, is that lawmakers’ unavoidable personal interests further complicate a process that must already consider many different factors.
First, to be constitutional, a House district’s population cannot deviate more than plus or minus 5% from the size of the mathematically ideal district.
Many of the rural counties that have lost population favor keeping the current size of the Legislature, so their level of representation is not diminished. Urban areas that have gained residents, including Laramie and Natrona counties, want to add lawmakers.
“Communities of interest” are the building blocks of the redistricting process. They refer to concentrated populations which share common social and economic interests that should be included within a single district for the purpose of effective and fair representation.
For example, Cheyenne’s south side residents objected to an initial plan that saw their area divided into four House districts, diluting the voting power of the predominantly Latino population. They successfully lobbied for two House districts nested inside their own Senate district.
Laramie County grew by nearly 10% since 2010, theoretically earning it another House seat. HB 100 gives the county that additional seat, but to make all the numbers work, it also places a Senate district in parts of Laramie, Platte and Goshen counties. That’s not the outcome any of the counties wanted.
Such problems, though, were inevitable. The committee created its map by dividing the state into nine regions. After the regional plans were developed, these puzzle pieces had to be put together statewide.
Sometimes, they just didn’t fit. Forcing them to do so required compromises that may be politically unpopular but necessary — and that’s even before lawmakers addressed how the new map might affect their own re-election chances.
“I think as a whole the committee stayed blind as to where anybody lived, at least until the clerks and the districts got together, and I think they did it with good faith,” said Corporations Co-chairman Sen. Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower).
When sitting legislators end up in the same district, he added, “We’re all uncomfortable … your natural instinct is to try to be as fair as you can, and being fair is you try not to indiscriminately affect some.”
That discomfort is understandable, but it’s also unnecessary. Legislators should not be directly involved in the process, and Idaho proves they don’t have to be.
Idaho’s redistricting demands are even more complex than Wyoming’s. The state has two congressional districts to draw, and it has the second-fastest-growing population in the nation.
Yet Idaho’s commission started its work a month later than Wyoming did, and had it done in time to allow four legal challenges to already be resolved by the state Supreme Court.
And the six-member body drew its legislative boundaries without considering where any incumbent lawmakers lived.
Wyoming can do the same thing. Fortunately, three legislators have already provided that path by sponsoring Senate Joint Resolution 1 – Redistricting commission.
The bipartisan plan would create an independent redistricting commission with five members, without regard to political affiliation. The governor would appoint two members, and the Senate president, House speaker and Supreme Court chief justice would each appoint one.
The joint resolution is sponsored by Sens. Mike Gierau (D-Jackson) and Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) and House Speaker Eric Barlow (R-Gillette).
This is precisely the type of forward-thinking legislation Wyoming should embrace. It would require an amendment to the state’s Constitution, which would take approval by the Senate and House before it goes to the voters in a general election.
Since the next redistricting process doesn’t start until 2031, there’s plenty of time for Wyoming to act, but the state should start now. It probably won’t be easy to convince lawmakers to give up their power to make all the decisions, but it might be infinitely more appealing to do it right after what promises to be a grueling process for everyone this budget session.