Idaho expects redistricting process to begin in September

The process is already behind schedule and will have far-reaching implications

By: - July 13, 2021 12:38 pm

Rotunda at the Idaho State Capitol building on March 23, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

Idaho’s next big political fight begins later this summer and will have far-reaching implications for the 2022 election and the future of government and politics in the Gem State. 

Idaho’s redistricting process is expected to begin in September based on U.S. Census Bureau data the state expects to receive in August, state officials told legislative leaders Tuesday during the Legislative Council meeting at the Statehouse. 

Complicating matters, the state is already behind schedule and a lawsuit is all but inevitable. 

Redistricting is the process of redrawing the state’s 35 legislative district boundaries and two congressional district boundaries. The process takes place at least once every 10 years and is required by the Idaho Constitution, the U.S. Constitution and state and federal laws to ensure political representation is proportional. 

Redistricting is normally a contentious, politically charged process. 

Legislative and political party leaders will appoint a total of six members to the Citizens Committee for Reapportionment, sometimes called the Redistricting Commission. There will be three Republicans and three Democrats serving on the commission, and it will take at least four votes to approve a map. 

This year, redistricting may prove even more contentious and politically charged than normal. 

Ten years ago, the U.S. Census Bureau announced it submitted population data to the state of Idaho on March 10, 2011. This year, the data is expected to arrive Aug. 16. 

“COVID has created extraordinary circumstances,” Elizabeth Bowen, a drafting attorney with the Legislative Services Office, told legislators Tuesday. “We are getting data next month that we should have had much earlier this year. Redistricting should already be happening, and it’s not happening yet. And I think, at times, the situation just has to bend to reality and we just have to find a way to deal with that.”

What goes into Idaho’s boundary maps?

The most important consideration for drafting the boundaries and maps is the equal protection guarantees in the U.S. Constitution and Idaho Constitution, Bowen said. That’s the “one person, one vote” principle that holds that one person’s vote should count as much as another. 

Bowen said that means that each legislative district should include very close to the same amount of people as each of the others.

That’s also the reason Idaho can’t just recycle the existing maps. Idaho has been one of the fastest growing states in the nation over the past 10 years. But different parts of the state have grown at different rates. 

The ideal size for a legislative district for redistricting is 52,546 people based on dividing Idaho’s population into 35. 

Other considerations redistricting commissioners must keep in mind include preserving counties by avoiding splitting them whenever possible, avoiding “floterial districts,” where one district overlays another, preserving neighborhoods and communities and avoiding oddly shaped districts, a criteria put in place in an effort to avoid gerrymandering and shoestring connections between areas of the same district. 

Even though there are criteria in place designed to prevent gerrymandering, or manipulating boundaries so they favor one party, it may be hard to avoid politics altogether. Two of the six commissioners will be appointed by political parties, while legislative leaders will appoint the other four. It’s hard to imagine Republicans would adopt a map that would obviously diminish their supermajority, while Democrats would not want a map that threatens their ranks.

Just how complicated could things get?

It’s possible — perhaps likely — incumbent legislators representing different districts today could be drawn into the same new district once new district boundaries and maps are approved. That could force one-time allies to decide on short notice whether to run against each other or leave the Legislature. 

If things go poorly, the Idaho Legislature may need to pass emergency legislation to move the date of the 2022 primary. 

“I’m hoping this won’t be necessary, but there is a potential the date of the primary election would have to change, for example,” Bowen said.

One of the challenges is that the Secretary of State and county clerks need to have boundaries finalized so candidates can formally declare their candidacy, ballots can be printed up well in advance of the primary election, which the Idaho law sets as the third Tuesday in May. For 2022, the primary election would take place May 17 if nothing changes.

Even if things don’t go that badly, previous experiences with redistricting show there are likely to be challenges. 

In 2011, for example, the first Citizens Committee on Reapportionment disbanded without approving any maps or reports. A second commission was appointed and adopted its prospective maps on Oct. 14. The first lawsuit challenging those outcomes was filed in November and the first court proceedings occurred in January 2012. 

“There will be a lawsuit, I don’t hold any illusions to that,” Keith Bybee, the deputy division manager of the Legislative Services Office’s budget and policy division, told legislators.

Once the redistricting commission holds its first meeting, it has 90 days to adopt its maps and report. 

“Let the parlor games begin,” Speaker of the Idaho House Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said during Tuesday’s meeting. 

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Clark Corbin
Clark Corbin

Clark Corbin has more than a decade of experience covering Idaho government and politics. He has covered every Idaho legislative session since 2011 gavel-to-gavel. Prior to joining the Idaho Capital Sun he reported for the Idaho Falls Post Register and Idaho Education News. His reporting in Idaho has helped uncover a multimillion-dollar investment scam and exposed inaccurate data that school districts submitted to the state.