Idaho redistricting commissioners are sworn in Sept. 1, 2021, at the Statehouse. The commission has 90 days to redraw congressional and legislative boundaries. (Clark Corbin/Idaho Capital Sun)
Idaho’s redistricting commission elected two former state senators Wednesday to serve as co-chairmen of the bipartisan group that will spend up to 90 days redrawing the state’s legislative and congressional districts.
Former Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, and former Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, will lead the group of six commissioners through the redistricting process. Davis has also served as a U.S. attorney.
Mandated by the United States Constitution and the Idaho Constitution, redistricting is the process of redrawing Idaho’s 35 legislative districts and two congressional districts every 10 years based on new U.S. Census Bureau data.
The purpose of redistricting is to ensure proportional representation, the idea by the principle of one person, one vote.
Idaho was the second fastest growing state in the country over the previous decade, according to the 2020 census, but that growth occurred unevenly across the state. That means the state’s existing districts will be redrawn to ensure representation is proportional.
Based on 2020’s population, the new ideal size for a legislative district will be 52,546 people, while the ideal population for a congressional district will be 919,553 people.
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The first meeting of the redistricting commission on Wednesday was important because it set off a 90-day timer for the commission to draw the two new maps and submit its plan to the state by Nov. 30.
Idaho redistricting process could get messy
Aside from the election of the two chairmen, the meeting was all about gearing up for the task ahead.
State officials and former redistricting commissioners spent most of the day warning commissioners about how difficult their jobs will be and how many things can go wrong.
“Probably in the next few weeks you will wonder about your sanity and why you decided to do this,” Secretary of State Lawerence Denney told commissioners during the meeting. “It’s a very important task, something we do once every 10 years.”
Gary Moncrief, Boise State University professor emeritus who published books about redistricting and government, gave a lengthy summary of the difficulties previous redistricting commissions and the Idaho Legislature faced over the decades. (Until 1994, the Idaho Legislature was responsible for redistricting).
Moncrief painted quite the picture of chaos and calamity:
- A near certainty of challenges or lawsuits.
- Large fluctuations in the number of legislative districts and big population variances between districts over the decades.
- Courts that have thrown out redistricting plans.
- A redistricting commission that gridlocked in 2011 without ever approving maps.
- Heaps of political pressure placed on the process.
- Even a fistfight inside the Statehouse between two senators — from the same party.
One of the tough tasks could be splitting the state into 35 equally sized legislative districts while trying to split as few of the state’s 44 counties as possible. State officials told commissioners that courts could reject any legislative plans with more than a 10% deviation from the ideal population.
“It’s been really hard for redistricting authorities — be they legislatures or commissions — to come to grips with this issue that you can’t go above the 10%,” Moncrief told commissioners.
Congressional districts need to be divided even more evenly.
Idaho will use Maptitude software to draw district boundaries
In conjunction with the meeting, redistricting commissioners made the Maptitude software they will use to draw district boundaries available to the public through the commission’s webpage. Anyone may create a legislative or congressional map based on 2020 census data by clicking on the maps tab on the commission’s website. Idahoans may also choose to submit their maps to the commission for review if they include their name, phone number and email address to be contacted to potentially offer testimony. Once a map is submitted, the map and information will become a public record as a part of the redistricting process.
On top of all that, Idaho received its redistricting data from the U.S. Census Bureau about five months later than it did the previous time in 2011. State officials told commissioners there is a tight timeline to finish the process, avoid court challenges and let counties prepare for the 2022 candidate filing period that opens Feb. 28.
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Randy Hansen, who served on the second redistricting commission in 2011, said recognizing the importance of the job will help get commissioners through the tough parts.
His other pieces of advice were to get to know the other commissioners as friends and to listen to the county clerks, who are experts in the local counties across the state.
“It’s probably one of the most rewarding, but also it is a very hard experience,” Hansen said during the meeting.
The redistricting commission meets again at 9 a.m. Thursday and Friday in Room West Wing 17 in the Statehouse. The meetings are streamed live via Idaho Public Television’s Idaho in Session program.
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