Legislature already bracing for redistricting legal challenges, hurried timeline

By Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports

The state now has a timeline for redistricting, and is already bracing for legal challenges and a cramped schedule. 

Idaho and other US states go through a redistricting process after the US Census every ten years to make sure legislative and congressional districts have roughly proportional populations. Changing the maps can affect who is able to run in which district, and can pit incumbents against each other in primary elections, as it did in the 2012 primary. 

Legislative Services Office drafting attorney Elizabeth Bowen presents information on redistricting to the Legislative Council on Tuesday, July 13. Melissa Davlin/Idaho Reports

Idaho expects to receive census data in mid-August, said Keith Bybee, Deputy Division Manager for the Legislative Services Office Budget and Policy Division. Bybee proposed the redistricting commission meet for about a month starting in mid-September. In that time, the redistricting commission members will learn Idaho redistricting law, study current and proposed maps, and visit communities across the state to hear testimony on current legislative districts.

LSO proposed a map finalization date of November 24, and December 12 as the final date to submit plans to the Secretary of State. But with an eye toward potential lawsuits, Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder asked for a “sense of urgency” from the staff and commission members.

“Nothing says it has to be 90 days,” Winder said.

Another complication: COVID-19 delayed the Census and subsequent release of data to the states. That, in turn, held up redistricting for states, said Elizabeth Bowen, LSO drafting attorney.

“Redistricting should already be happening and it’s not happening yet,” Bowen said.

Even in normal years, redistricting generates drama. The second 2011 redistricting commission proposed a map on October 14, after the first commission disbanded without agreeing on a plan. Twin Falls County filed a lawsuit in November, and court proceedings took place in January 2012. After the Idaho Supreme Court ruled the map unconstitutional, the commission reconvened and submitted a second map that was ultimately accepted.

Bybee told lawmakers he expects another legal challenge.

“There will be a lawsuit. I don’t hold any illusions to that,” he said.

The next few months will be a new experience for most elected officials in the statehouse. Since the last redistricting process, there’s been a substantial amount of turnover in the legislature. Of the 70 members of the House, just 10 were there when the new map was adopted in 2012. Of the Senate’s 35 members, 12 were there. 

Even prominent members of legislative leadership will be new to the redistricting process. Of the legislature’s leaders, just Winder, House Speaker Scott Bedke, House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, and Senate Assistant Minority Leader Grant Burgoyne were in the Legislature during the 2012 session.

If — or when — the new district map faces a legal challenge, an entirely new Supreme Court will consider the arguments. The longest serving member of the Idaho Supreme Court is Justice Robyn Brody, who was elected in 2016.

A potential lawsuit could affect candidates’ ability to file to run for office. If a candidate doesn’t know which legislative district they live in, they won’t be able to get their names on the ballot until the map comes out and the court rules on a legal challenge.

And the decision to run in a newly drawn district isn’t a given. When the final map came out during the 2012 legislative session, a number of incumbents chose to retire instead of running against their colleagues. Legislative District 27 pitted three incumbent senators against each other; Two ultimately retired.

Idaho’s redistricting commission is made of six members, with one member each appointed by the Senate President Pro Tem, the Senate Minority Leader, the House Speaker, the House Minority Leader, the Idaho Republican Party chair, and the Idaho Democratic Party chair. Meetings are open to the public, and citizens can submit their own maps for the commission’s consideration.

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