by Logan Finney, Idaho Reports
As the 2021 redistricting commission gathered public input at a series of Treasure Valley meetings last week, residents of Ada and Canyon counties asked themselves: Which towns and neighborhoods feel like my community?
For much of the state, the redistricting commission has to decide which counties to fit together into a legislative district. In rapidly growing urban areas like the Treasure Valley, however, it’ll come down to which small towns to group together and on which streets to draw the dividing lines.
The commission prepared a draft legislative map, designated L01, as a starting point for public comments. That proposal is not under serious consideration, but was an exercise for the commissioners to get familiar with the software and how moving the district lines affects population numbers.
“If the proposed legislative district plan [L01] came up before this commission for a vote today, it would probably fail on a zero to six vote,” commission member Bart Davis, a former state senator, said repeatedly.
Legislative districts are not allowed to have a population difference greater than 10%. For L01 the commission chose to keep all districts within 5% above and below the ideal district population of 52,546 people. A map with populations 2% above and 8% below, for example, would also be permissible.
The commission is constitutionally required to avoid dividing counties between districts as much as possible. Idaho Supreme Court precedent indicates they must choose the map with the fewest county splits, even if another map better suits communities of interest.
Ada County currently has nine full legislative districts. While there has been population growth, some feel it hasn’t been enough to justify a tenth district contained fully within the county.
Canyon County currently has four full legislative districts: one containing Caldwell, two containing Nampa, and one containing Middleton and the rural areas of the county. A northern portion of the county containing Parma is split off into a district with Payette, Washington and Adams counties.
The proposed L01 plan is largely similar to the existing legislative map in the Treasure Valley, with a few key changes.
L01 returns the Parma region to the rural Canyon County district, and extends the northern Nampa district east to the Canyon-Ada county line.
The map’s biggest change is creating a new rural district by splitting off southern portions of Canyon and Ada counties into a new district with Owyhee County.
Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, expressed concern at the Nampa meeting with how the L01 map groups Elmore County with central Idaho after removing it from its existing district with Owyhee County.
“I look at the map that has Mountain Home, goes all the way to McCall, and then goes all the way to Mackay. That to me looks like if I lived in that district, I wouldn’t run,” said Vander Woude, who represents southern Ada County in District 22. “You’ve got to look at, too, how would somebody run in that district, and are they able to reach their constituents to be effective.”
Rep. Scott Syme, R-Caldwell, also spoke at the Nampa meeting. He represents the Canyon County district that currently wraps around the Caldwell-Nampa urban area.
“District 11 is a very rural district right now, but you have Middleton, which is growing at an extremely rapid rate,” said Syme, who is a real estate broker. “Over the next few years you’re going to see a tremendous growth in Middleton.”
“Middleton is becoming more like Caldwell, and in fact they are very close together,” Syme said. “They’re coming together as we speak.”
Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, said it made the most sense to group Owyhee County with southern Canyon County — rather than with Ada County — because of the towns at crossing points along the Snake River.
“Most of the population of Owyhee County is to that west end, so it makes sense to be with part of Canyon County,” Rice said. “Most of that empty area [in southern Ada County] is the target range for Mountain Home Air Force Base.”
Syme lives in western Canyon County and described the community of interest he sees in that area.
“I have a Wilder address, I am in Homedale School District, and I am in Homedale Fire District,” Syme said. “So to me, all those people in Marsing and Homedale, they shop, they relate to all of us in western Canyon County. It’s very similar lifestyles.”
At the Meridian meeting, Brian Merrell told the commission that the combined population of Ada, Canyon, and Owyhee counties is enough to create 14 roughly equal districts.
“I feel like these three counties share a lot in common in the Treasure Valley. They share school districts, they share cities, they share civic organizations, and many other things,” Merrell said.
Merrell also advocated for a map that focuses on population centers rather than the Canyon-Ada county line.
Multiple attendees encouraged the commission to create a legislative district that crosses the county line to keep the community of Star whole. The city’s area of impact extends westward into northern Canyon County, and its population has nearly doubled since the last census. Star is currently grouped with Eagle in the fastest-growing legislative district.
The commission was also encouraged to cross the county line further south, grouping the towns of Kuna and Melba in a single district.
“My mailing address is a Kuna mailing address, but because of where I live, my children live in the Melba school district,” Merrell said. “We play sports in Melba, we go to church in Melba. We feel very connected to Melba, but at the same time I work in Kuna and live in Kuna.”
Rice, who grew up in Kuna, expressed similar sentiments at the Nampa meeting.
Merrell also noted that the L01 map separates several dairy farms in the Kuna Caves area into a district with Owyhee County and a district with southern Meridian.
“I feel it would be important to keep the dairy community and the farming community together,” Merrell said.
Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, agreed that it would make sense to put the city of Meridian in its own districts rather than grouping it with the rural area to the south.
“It’s been a challenge for Meridian to be represented by four different legislative districts in the past,” Den Hartog said.
“In my mind, Kuna has a lot more in common with Melba than it does with Meridian,” Den Hartog said. “If it made sense within the numbers, in terms of the other county splits, I think it would make sense to ignore the county line in that particular area.”
Branden Durst, a former state senator and current candidate for superintendent of public instruction, spoke against the idea of districts crossing the Canyon-Ada line. He argued the courts would not allow the commission to split Ada County externally, as a map with nine fully contained districts falls within the acceptable population margins. Ten fully contained districts could also fit those requirements, but would put more pressure on other areas of the map.
Meridian Mayor Robert Simison echoed some of Den Hartog’s comments about his city being heavily divided under past districting plans.
“That [L01] is a very pretty map. Canyon County looks great. Boise looks great. And man did we mess up Star, Meridian and Kuna,” Simison said. “Based upon our population, I hope we can have two districts that are central to Meridian that really represent the community.”
Feedback from Kuna and Meridian contrasted with public input at the Eagle meeting, where residents encouraged the commission to divide their city down the center along Eagle Road. Several speakers said they live their daily lives entirely on the east side or the west side of that busy travel corridor, and that it makes sense to them as a clear boundary line.
A desire for clear, easy-to-describe district lines along major roads was a common theme in Boise. Many people spoke in favor of L023, a map submitted by Jordan Morales, on account of its boundary lines along major travel corridors like Franklin Road and State Street.
“The really awesome thing about this map I really want to get across to those that may not be as familiar with the Boise metro area is the east to west delineation of districts. Everything in Boise is east to west: the foothills, the river, I-84, a lot of our arterial roads,” Morales said.
“That’s how we traverse our neighborhoods all the time,” Morales told Idaho Reports. “We look out the window and we see the foothills, you know, it’s just natural. The current map has oddly shaped districts in Ada County, and this really cleans it up.”
One Meridian attendee who spoke in favor of L023 was an elections worker last November. She said that helping Ada County constituents figure out which district they live in was particularly difficult in areas where lines go between houses or through neighborhoods rather than along major streets.
“If you’re a legislator in these districts telling your constituents what district you represent, and you want them to easily find out if they’re in your district, you’re going to be able to state major roads that everyone in Boise knows,” Morales told the commission of his map.
Attendees at the Boise meeting also repeatedly urged the commission to keep Garden City together in one legislative district.
Others in the valley encouraged the commission to keep rapidly-growing areas in mind.
“Our population centers are growing, even Twin Falls in the Magic Valley, even Pocatello in the Portneuf Valley,” Kuna resident Jason Pretty Boy said. “Instead of just a couple of years in advance, we need to start thinking 20 years in advance to 30 years in advance.”
Davis heartily agreed with those comments, saying there have been dramatic changes across the legislative maps he is familiar with over the last four decades.
“I wondered if when we draw these lines if we shouldn’t also consider, where are the areas of growth likely to be?” Davis said. “Take Middleton, for instance. That place is just going to continue to grow. Is that one where we maybe have more of an under population? So that as time goes by, they’re more down in the minus five [range] and can grow up to [the ideal population]?”
On the other hand, Davis and Pretty Boy agreed, it is difficult to accurately estimate where the state’s population will change in the future.
Simison, the Meridian mayor, also cautioned the commission against adjusting districts too far based on assumptions of future growth.
“That’s really not fair to the current city needs and residents. Take into consideration first and foremost the current residents who live here,” Simison said. “While we all can predict growth, we can’t guarantee growth.”
The commission repeatedly encouraged everyone to submit their own map ideas online, or to send them comments about maps on the website already submitted by members of the public.
While the redistricting commission legally has until the last day of November to create and submit a redistricting plan, they hope to complete the process even sooner.
“You’ll be most effective with your ideas if you can get those submitted in the next three to four weeks, because eventually the concrete will start to dry in certain areas,” Davis said.