North Idaho communities make redistricting requests
by Logan Finney, Idaho Reports
The 2021 Commission for Reapportionment is getting a clearer idea of which areas of the state to group together in new legislative and congressional maps. Commissioners made their way down the panhandle last week gathering input from residents in northern Idaho.
“The trend is this: ‘We don’t want to be with them. We’d like to be with these folks instead.’ We’re sensitive to that,” commission co-chair Bart Davis said in Lewiston.
The new legislative map should have an ideal population of 52,546 people per district, though up to a 10% deviation from that target is allowed. The commission also must keep the number of county splits to a minimum.
The commission has an early proposal map, dubbed L01, which they prepared for the hearings to solicit feedback and to show how the state’s population has changed in the last ten years.
“Idaho’s population has changed dramatically,” co-chair Dan Schmidt said in Moscow. “We are not here to sell you on this map. This is just to get the conversation going.”
Starting at the Canadian border, the shape of the panhandle forces Boundary and Bonner counties into a district together. With a combined 59,166 census population, however, the two counties are too large to be combined in a single district.
“The nugget of the problem,” Rick Price said at the Sandpoint meeting, “is that somehow we have to cut five thousand people out of Bonner County and put them somewhere.”
The existing legislative map for the last 10 years accomplished that by putting the southeastern corner of the county — east of Highway 95, south of Lake Pend Oreille and the Clark Fork River — in the sprawling District 7 with Shoshone, Clearwater and Idaho counties.
District 7 has typically been represented by legislators from central Idaho, several hours south of Bonner County. The majority of the Sandpoint meeting testimony came from Sagle residents who pleaded with the commission to reunite them with their neighbors in District 1.
“[It] has been a real detriment to people being involved in the political process in Bonner County,” said former state representative George Eskridge, who lives in Dover. “I’ve had so many people tell me how disappointed they are in the last redistricting effort that took them out of the realm of politics.”
Other Sandpoint meeting attendees were concerned that the commission was attempting to kick an incumbent lawmaker out of the district. Commissioners assured them that wasn’t the case.
“The statues say that we’re not supposed to consider where [incumbent] people are located,” Davis said. “We‘ve tried hard to not know the answer to that question, so if we have done that or ultimately do that, it’s going to be innocent on our part. We’re gonna try and draw the lines in the ways that best serve the people of that district, not the legislator that may be currently serving.”
“So don’t tell us who this person is. Don’t tell us where this person lives,” Davis said.
(Commissioners, this is your warning to skip the next paragraph.)
Cutting off a corner of Bonner County in the west rather than in the east means District 1 would no longer include the town of Blanchard, which is the home of Rep. Heather Scott.
One Sandpoint attendee from Athol pointed out that many Kootenai County residents will likely no longer live in districts with their incumbent legislators as well.
Kootenai County currently has three full legislative districts: one in the southwest, one in the city of Coeur d’Alene, and one in the north and east. The county’s population has grown enough to gain a quarter of a district, so part of the county will be in a new fourth district that crosses the county line.
Further south in Plummer, the commission held a hearing on the Coeur d’Alene Tribe Reservation, which overlays about half of Benewah County and the southern part of Kootenai County. The commission particularly wanted to know whether they should attempt to put the full reservation into a single district, as the new Kootenai County districts will be able to cross county lines.
Tribal council chairman Chief Allen said the tribe has been fine being represented by multiple legislative districts, and their community extends beyond the reservation boundaries.
Benewah County and Latah County are currently in District 5, but the two counties’ combined census population of 49,047 is no longer enough to make up a whole district. The commission’s L01 plan addresses this by separating the two counties.
Dulce Kersting-Lark, a legislative candidate in the last election, pointed to the history of the region to support that move. Latah County was created in 1888 from land in territorial Nez Perce County, while Benewah County was created in 1915 from land in Kootenai County.
The L01 map puts Benewah County in a district with Clearwater, Shosone, and eastern Kootenai County. It splits Nez Perce County, grouping most of the county in a district with Lewis, Idaho and Adams counties, while the northern half of Lewiston is put into a district with Latah County.
Moscow residents were largely in favor of being grouped with Lewiston under the L01 plan.
“We work hand in hand on numerous things,” said Moscow mayor Bill Lambert, who is not seeking reelection. “There’s crossover with employees that work and live in Moscow as well as Lewiston.”
Many referenced strong ties between Latah agricultural producers and the Port of Lewiston. Some described a higher education community of interest, as the two cities are home to the University of Idaho and Lewis-Clark State College. Others pointed to the fact that Latah and Nez Perce counties are in the same judicial district and public health district, unlike Latah and Benewah counties.
“I often feel guilty representing Benewah County,” admitted Sen. David Nelson, D-Moscow. “When I get two invites to a health district meeting — one in Coeur d’Alene to represent Benewah County and one in Lewiston to represent Latah County — it’s often a scheduling struggle. And the issues [in each county] can really be quite different.”
Not all Moscow attendees felt that breaking up District 5 was the best option.
Based on the Moscow meeting, “you would think Latah County consisted of Moscow and Genesee,” said Rep. Brandon Mitchell, R-Moscow. He told the commission that residents of rural towns like Potlatch and Boville have strong connections to Benewah County, even if they were less represented at the hearing.
Attendees in Lewiston were far less enthusiastic about pairing Moscow and Lewiston. Nez Perce County clerk Patty Weeks argued that residents of her county don’t feel a strong relationship with Moscow. Rather, she said, residents of Moscow, Orofino and Grangeville gravitate toward them.
“Nez Perce County and Lewiston is our hub, and I advocate to keep us whole,” Weeks said.
Several attendees of the Lewiston meeting agreed that a natural place to divide Idaho County would be the Pacific-Mountain time zone boundary along the Salmon River.
“Everybody south of the Salmon River shops, socializes, goes to medical services in McCall or Boise,” said Idaho County commissioner Skip Brandt, a former state senator.
Davis has frequently used a balloon metaphor to describe the redistricting process; when you start pushing on one area, all the other areas start to bulge.
The current legislative map splits seven counties: Bonner, Kootenai, Canyon, Ada, Twin Falls, Bannock and Bonneville. It has been widely speculated that the commission will be forced to split an eighth county in central Idaho due to uneven population growth and geographical limitations.
Whichever counties the commission decides to split — whether by choice or by force — Davis has expressed that they intend to ask those county clerks to help them with the fine details.
“We’re eventually going to put out one [map] that we have greater confidence in than what we have right now. That’s where your precision would mean the most to us. If for some reason the county does have to be split,” Davis posed to Weeks, “is there a better divider, culturally, that we’re not sensitive to?”
The commission has encouraged members of the public to visit redistricting.idaho.gov to submit written testimony or their own maps.
“We have gotten lots of submissions and many of them have been very helpful. Very interesting solutions to this problem,” Schmidt said in Moscow.