The state’s efforts to complete the constitutionally required redistricting process started with transparency, accountability, and public participation. But it ended in disgrace as lawmakers huddled in small groups behind closed doors in the Capitol, horse-trading towns and constituencies before eventually presenting a map to House and Senate members as an eleventh-hour fait accompli.
The final map that will dictate legislative districts for the next decade was not made public until after it was approved, less than two hours before the deadline.
You might be asking yourself, how did seven months of work fall apart on the very last day of the 2022 Budget session? How did hundreds of hours of testimony, dozens of maps prepared by legislative staff and a process that began with complete transparency end in shambles?
Redistricting is hard.
In Wyoming, it requires a committee of elected legislators to divide the state’s population into relatively equal districts to ensure equal representation. While it sounds simple enough, once you start moving boundaries that impact legislators’ neighbors, supporters, family members, and donors you start to see the cracks appear.
Ask any one of the legislators that served on the Joint Corporations Committee, and I am certain they will express how difficult it was to complete this exercise, but complete it they did. To comply with all the redistricting principles the committee passed a map that grew the Legislature by three seats. The House agreed, the plan was not perfect, but it was good enough.
However, once the bill arrived in the Senate it was amended to keep the number of current seats, (60/30) thus creating a map that included several districts that were outside of the legally required deviation (courts have ruled that each House and Senate district must be within plus or minus 5% of the ideal population).
With each chamber voting on a different map, a Joint Conference Committee of three representatives and three senators was appointed to hash out a solution. Not one of the senators selected by leadership had served on the Joint Corporations Committee. They were so unfamiliar with the process that during a meeting one asked where they could find the maps on-line. It was a slap in the face to those of us that have spent countless hours studying maps.
Certain legislators representing Sheridan and Johnson counties insisted on a couple of small tweaks in their region which resulted in the violation of two guiding redistricting principles: equal representation and “nesting” two House districts inside each Senate district. Their product created six districts out of deviation and one region that is “unnested.”
The state of Wyoming has been sued four times for its redistricting maps. And, alas, here we are in 2022 once again looking at a map that is technically in violation of the law.
In 1991, Sarah Gorin sued the state of Wyoming for its redistricting process and disregard for the one-person, one-vote principle. In Gorin v. Karpan, the Supreme Court ruled that legislative districts must have equitable voting power and that the map approved by Wyoming lawmakers was unconstitutional.
(Three years later, Gorin founded the Equality State Policy Center. In some ways, ESPC’s history can be traced back to the redistricting process.)
This process is not working, that much is clear. Wyoming can and should do better. It would be wise to consider an independent redistricting commission now, while this experience is fresh in our memories.
Our neighbors to the north in Montana have created a five-member commission with the State Supreme Court, House majority leader, House minority leader, Senate majority leader, and Senate minority leader each appointing one member. Wyoming could adopt a similar model with perhaps the governor and the county clerks each appointing a representative.
There are many ways to create a commission that reflects the values and citizens of any state. I am certain that we can find a system that works better for Wyoming.
I don’t know if the redistricting process is broken or if it’s the people who are administering the process that are what’s broken.