One person, one vote, forty-four counties

by Logan Finney, Idaho Reports

Redistricting commission member Tom Dayley and Kuna resident Jason Pretty Boy examine legislative map L01 before the Sept. 16 meeting at Meridian City Hall.

As Idaho communities have grown unevenly over the past decade, how should the interests of urban and rural areas best be represented?

That’s one of several issues before Idaho’s redistricting commission as they decide how to lay out 35 legislative districts across the 44 counties.

The bipartisan six-member commission spent five weeks touring the state and gathering public testimony on a set of draft maps. They spent the last two weeks at home adjusting those maps to reflect citizen input, then met this week to work in two-member subcommittees on different regions of the state.

The commission agreed Thursday evening to publish a new legislative map, dubbed L02, to reflect the progress that’s been made. They will meet again next week to continue making legislative adjustments and publish another congressional map.

While the commission legally has until Nov. 30 to submit the final plans, they indicated Thursday that they plan to vote and approve the final maps on Nov. 10, days before the legislature reconvenes the following week.

The 2021 Commission for Reapportionment at the Idaho State Capitol on Sept. 16:
Tom Dayley, Amber Pence, Dan Schmidt, Bart Davis, Eric Redman, and Nels Mitchell.

Lawmakers and voters approved changing Idaho’s constitution in 2020 to set the number of legislative districts at 35. The constitution previously allowed a range of 30 to 35 districts.

That proposal passed the legislature by a wide margin, though not unanimously. For example, Rep. Priscilla Giddings told KTVB she voted against the amendment because the Idaho Republican Party is in favor of a range between 35 and 45 districts. 

“When legislative districts get larger due to redistricting,” the party resolution reads, “rural districts lose representation.”

35 Legislative DistrictsIdaho PopulationTarget District Population

Clearwater County commissioner Rick Winkel told the commission on Sept. 24 in Lewiston that his constituents are nervous about being put in a district with a bigger city, and would prefer a district that preserves their rural voice in the legislature.

In the Magic Valley, “many of us are afraid that the representation for the small counties will disappear,” Camas County GOP chair and former Rep. Charles Lee Barron said on Sept. 29 in Hailey.

Barron told the commission that — although it is not within their purview — he is in favor of changing the makeup of the legislature to ensure that rural areas do not lose representation. 

Barron said that rural and agricultural areas would be better represented under a system that guarantees at least one legislator to each county. He pointed to the fact that many counties in the state don’t have a lawmaker of their own.

Idaho Reports analyzed legislators’ publicly available addresses and found 18 counties without a resident lawmaker, such as Shoshone, Adams, Lincoln, and Power counties. The new district map and the upcoming spring primary are likely to shuffle that configuration as incumbent lawmakers are sorted into new districts.

A number of Idahoans have expressed concern at the thought of rural areas losing influence in the legislature as urban areas continue to grow in population. One way to fight against that trend, some believe, is to allocate one senator to each county.

The Idaho Farm Bureau 2020 Policy Book also supports a constitutional amendment “to allow one senator per county.”

According to a September presentation that Boise State University professor Dr. Gary Moncrief gave to the commission, the Idaho Legislature operated with one senator per county from 1929 to 1965, with additional House seats given to the more populous counties. 

However, returning to that version of the legislature is not possible under constitutional case law. 

In the 1964 case Reynolds v. Sims, the U.S. Supreme Court outlined the one person, one vote principle under the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The court found that “legislators represent people, not areas,” and that “weighting votes differently according to where citizens happen to reside is discriminatory.” The court also ruled that both chambers of a state legislature must be apportioned by population. 

State legislatures can’t use the federal system in which representatives are apportioned to the U.S. House by population and two senators are sent by each state to the U.S. Senate — a model commonly taught in history classes as “the Great Compromise” — because the states are sovereign political entities, whereas counties are not sovereign.

“Attempted reliance on the federal analogy appears often to be little more than an after-the-fact rationalization offered in defense of maladjusted state apportionment arrangements,” the court wrote. “Arising from unique historical circumstances, it is based on the consideration that, in establishing our type of federalism a group of formerly independent States bound themselves together under one national government.”

In the 1980s, Idaho’s legislative district model balanced population differences between the counties by imposing regional floterial districts, which were eliminated following the 1990 census. The redistricting commission was created by a constitutional amendment in 1994.

The commission is now charged with drawing a legislative map that splits as few counties as possible, with 35 districts of less than 10 percent population deviation.

The largest county in the state, Ada County, has a population of 494,967 people, or 26.9% of the state’s total population. The county is currently home to 25.7% of the state’s 105 lawmakers.

Clark County on the other hand, the smallest county in the state, has a population of 790 people, just 0.043% of Idaho’s population. 

To guarantee an individual senator to every county under the current model — i.e., a world where each of Idaho’s legislative districts represents a population equal to the smallest county — the math works out so that Idaho would need 2,328 legislative districts and 6,984 total lawmakers.

So unless Idahoans want the state capitol building in Boise to become a temporary city roughly the size of Emmett or Rupert every year, the politicians will have to figure out a different way to protect rural voices.

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