Commissioners Bart Davis, left, and Thomas Daley walk down the hallway following a meeting Sept. 2. (Jim Max / For the Idaho Capital Sun).
Now one-third of the way into its 90-day deadline, the assignment for Idaho’s bipartisan redistricting commission is about to get harder.
Since Sept. 1, Idaho’s six redistricting commissioners have been working toward redrawing Idaho’s 35 legislative districts and two congressional districts. By law, they have until Nov. 30 to turn in two approved maps and a new redistricting plan.
Commissioners have thus far produced three rough draft map proposals and will finish up a run of public hearings across the state later this week.
“We are a week away from beginning the hardest part of our work,” redistricting co-chairman Bart Davis told the other commissioners Thursday. “Let’s not let external political pressure become a wedge in the relationship we are trying to maintain in finding this statewide solution.”
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Why is it about to get harder?
Now it’s crunch time.
With the public hearings about to wrap up, commissioners will shift their focus to creating maps of new political boundaries with the clock ticking.
There was less pressure with the original three rough maps. Commissioners put those together somewhat quickly to give the public an example of proposals and spark debate and conversations. Commissioners were always clear those maps were not a final or even a thorough proposal.
But now it’s time to work toward final, thorough proposals that can win the support of at least four of the six commissioners, satisfy the legal requirements and survive a potential challenge in the Idaho Supreme Court.
“Nobody is going to get everything they want, and we’re just going to have to do the best we can,” commissioner Dan Schmidt said during Thursday’s meeting.
Complicating the picture, Idaho state officials received redistricting data from the U.S. Census Bureau three or four months later than usual due to COVID-19 delays. Commissioners and state officials know that a lengthy gridlock among the commission or a successful lawsuit overturning the redistricting plan could jeopardize the state’s ability to hold its 2022 primary elections on time on May 17.
“Now we’re running out of time,” Davis said Thursday night in Twin Falls. “We got the census numbers late. We can’t sit on a 90-day clock like some of the prior commissions did, so we’re feeling a real urgency to get our work completed and out for everybody to take a look at again.”
How does redistricting work in Idaho?
Redistricting takes place every 10 years and is the process of using new U.S. Census Bureau data to redraw legislative and congressional boundaries. The process is required by the Idaho Constitution and the U.S. Constitution to ensure political representation is as equal as possible.
Idaho was the second-fastest-growing state in the country over the past decade, according to the 2020 census, but that growth was divided and uneven. That’s why the old boundaries need to be tossed out and redrawn to satisfy the principle of “one person, one vote.”
“I believe the commissioners are working hard to get this right for all the people of Idaho,” commissioner Amber Pence told the Idaho Capital Sun on Thursday. “Nothing is more important in a democracy than a person’s vote and I want each of those votes to carry as close to equal weight as we can.”
Idaho is one of 14 states that uses an independent commission to handle redistricting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The other states use their state legislature or state assembly.
Idaho’s process truly is bipartisan. Idaho has six commissioners — three appointed by Republicans and three appointed by Democrats. For a map to be approved, it requires a minimum of four or six votes. The commission is charged with creating one legislative map, one congressional map and submitting its redistricting plan to the state.
Based on Idaho’s 2020 census population of 1.8 million, the ideal population size for a district is 52,546.
Unfortunately, commissioners can’t just split the state into 35 equal legislative districts any way they want. Based on an Idaho Supreme Court ruling from a decade ago, commissioners have been instructed to split as few of the state’s 44 counties as possible. State law and other rules also instruct commissioners to avoid splitting up cities and communities of interest.
Davis, who served eight terms as the Idaho Senate majority leader and went on to serve as U.S. attorney for Idaho until he stepped down in February, said he’s finding that out the hard way.
When Davis was in the Idaho Senate, he followed redistricting with interest. But said he really only cared about his home district in Idaho Falls, which he represented. When Davis heard other legislators complain about how their districts were drawn, he joined them in proverbially “throwing rocks” at the commission’s maps and complaining about how easy the process should be to get right.
Now those sentiments may be coming back to haunt Davis a bit. Davis said Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise, heard him say that, kept it in mind, and ultimately appointed Davis to the commission this time.
“I am telling you, now I have a whole different opinion of it today than I have had in the past,” Davis said. “It is a very difficult mathematical problem. We are trying to check our politics at the door, but it is still a political process and we recognize that.”
What have redistricting commissioners done so far?
As of Friday, commissioners have met 20 times since Sept. 1. They generally work three days a week, Wednesday through Friday, sometimes hosting two public hearings in one day and working evenings.
Commissioners began their assignment in September by training on the Maptitude software they are using to redraw political boundaries and going through the legal and constitution requirements they must satisfy.
Then, on Sept. 10, commissioners finalized the three rough maps — two congressional maps and one legislative map. One congressional map splits Ada County, the state’s most populated county, between both congressional districts. The other map places Ada County and the Treasure Valley entirely within the first congressional district.
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For the past 10 years, Boise and Ada County have been split between the two congressional districts.
The maps, alongside about 80 maps that members of the public have drawn and submitted, are available to review on the redistricting commission’s website. The public may also use a free version of the Maptitude software to design and submit their own maps for consideration. (Once submitted, any maps and the name of the person who submitted them become public records).
Commissioners have toured the state hosting public hearings regionally (commissioners are reimbursed by the state for their travel and expenses and receive an honorarium payment from the state for their time).
Commissioners have held, or will soon hold, hearings in:
- Coeur d’Alene
- Plummer, on the Coeur d’Alene Tribe Reservation
- Twin Falls
- Fort Hall Reservation
- Pocatello, at Idaho State University
- Idaho Falls
Commissioner Eric Redman said the hearings have been a valuable way for commissioners to hear from Idahoans.
“You learn a lot about the different areas,” Redman said in an interview Thursday. “I know my area in the far north and so I like to hear from the other areas. I’m a little frustrated about the county split thing, I don’t think that actually helps out our communities of interest.”
During one of the hearings, Meridian Mayor Robert Simison asked for commissioners to draw two districts that “are really central to Meridian and really represent the community.”
During another hearing, Chief Allan, chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, said the way the tribe has been represented over the previous 10 years, split between two districts works well.
“This is our homeland, we have a tight connection with Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls, our reservation used to stretch all the way up there, and the city of Coeur d’Alene is named after our namesake,” Allan said during the meeting.
Although it’s crunch time, Redman is optimistic and said he’s been pleased with the reception and dialogue during the public hearings.
“We will get there,” Redman said. “We’ve got more ideas and a lot of maps to be turned out. I know it can be complicated for a lot of people. I know we all here have put in a substantial amount of hours at home and on our own individual laptops.”
What’s happening this week with the commission?
Commissioners are wrapping up their public hearings in eastern Idaho this week before returning to Boise next week.
This week’s public hearing schedule calls for the following meetings:
- 1 p.m. Wednesday, Fort Hall Shoshone-Bannock Casino Hotel, Chokecherry Room, 777 Bannock Trail, Fort Hall.
- 7 p.m. Wednesday, Idaho State University, Pond Student Union Building, Wood River Room, 1065 Cesar Chavez, Pocatello.
- 1 p.m. Thursday, Rexburg City Hall Council Chambers, 35 North 1st East, Rexburg.
- 7 p.m. Thursday, Idaho Falls University Place, Center for Higher Education Building, Room 213, 1770 Science Center Drive., Idaho Falls.
- 1 p.m. Friday, Idaho Falls Public Library, 457 W. Broadway St., Idaho Falls.
- 7 p.m., Oct. 12, Idaho State Capitol, Lincoln Auditorium, Boise. Commissioners will accept live, remote online testimony. Anyone interested in testifying should register to do so online in advance.
The redistricting commission’s meetings are streamed live online, for free, using Idaho Public Television’s Idaho in Session service. Be sure to click the correct date and time for the meetings on the calendar under the link for “Commission for Reapportionment.”
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