by Logan Finney, Idaho Reports
Challenges to Idaho’s redistricting plans have been denied by the Idaho Supreme Court, which means new legislative districts are officially finalized for the primary election this spring.
In a ruling issued Thursday, the court affirmed the redistricting commission’s decision to prioritize the smallest possible population deviations between legislative districts over reducing the number of counties that are split between districts.
The U.S. Constitution requires population deviations no greater than 10% between legislative districts. The Idaho Constitution, on the other hand, requires the redistricting commission to keep county divisions between legislative districts to a minimum.
In the court opinion, Justice John Stegner writes that the state constitution lets the commission divide counties for only one reason: complying with that ‘one person, one vote’ equal protection principle under the federal constitution.
The current legislative map contains seven split counties: Bonner, Kootenai, Canyon, Ada, Twin Falls, Bannock and Bonneville. The new map adopted by the redistricting commission creates an eight split in Nez Perce County.
“Effectuating a plan that adheres to both federal and state constitutional mandates is a delicate balancing act” entrusted to the redistricting commission, Stegner wrote. The court’s role in redistricting is simply to determine whether the commission reasonably determined how many counties it must divide to satisfy equal protection requirements.
The court pointed out that a redistricting plan is not automatically constitutional just because it has less than 10% population deviation. All of the submitted plans that allowed for only seven county splits contain population deviations higher than 9%, and either dramatically under-populate certain regions or draw odd boundaries to make the math work.
“Commitment to equal protection requires aiming for 0% deviation, not 10%,” the commission wrote in its final report.
The court opinion also notes that the plan’s population deviation of 5.84% is the lowest of any redistricting plan ever adopted by a commission.
“Petitioners ask us to second-guess the Commission and decide that another plan is better,” the court wrote. “The Constitution does not allow us to pick another plan just because the numbers are different.”
Branden Durst filed the first legislative challenge, which asserted the commission’s plan should be thrown out because Durst had submitted a map that he says only splits seven counties.
Durst is a candidate for superintendent of public instruction and a former state senator.
Ada and Canyon counties also challenged the plan “because it unnecessarily divides Ada and Canyon counties and fails to keep communities of interest intact by placing rural and urban populations within the same district.”
County officials took issue with the fact that the plan splits off a number of areas to group them with neighboring counties, rather than drawing whole legislative districts fully contained within county lines.
Those divisions are colloquially referred to as “external splits,” where part of a county is grouped with a neighboring county, versus “internal splits” of a county where multiple districts are wholly contained within county lines.
Examples of those divisions in the existing legislative map include internal splits of Ada and Kootenai counties, with external splits in northern Canyon County and southern Bonner County.
In their deliberations last year, commissioners acknowledged that the court’s stance on “external versus internal” county splits was not well defined in existing jurisprudence.
A challenge from the Coeur d’Alene and Shoshone-Bannock tribes objected to how the map divides their reservations between multiple legislative districts. The map splits the Coeur d’Alene reservation between two districts and the Shoshone-Bannock reservation between three, especially the main population hub of the Fort Hall area.
“We are unable to raise community interests, such as the Tribes’, above the counties’ interests, which are protected to a greater degree by the Idaho Constitution,” the court found. “To afford the Tribes the heightened status they seek, an amendment to the state constitution would be required.”
Another challenge from Spencer Stucki argued that preserving communities of interest should be more important than binding the commission to a restrictive county split requirement.
Stucki argued that the odd geography of northern Idaho used up the full quota of eight acceptable divisions, and the commissioners, “being constrained by the no more than eight external county splits, had no choice but to draw the southeast Idaho districts” in a way that ignored the concerns of residents in that region.
The court rejected that argument on the grounds that the state constitution only allows the commission to divide counties to comply with equal protection requirements and not for any other reason.
The redistricting commission structure was approved by Idaho voters as a constitutional amendment in 1994, which means this is only the third decennial census under which redistricting was conducted by a commission rather than the legislature. Under this decision, future redistricting commissions should have a clearer understanding that they should prioritize low population deviations as they draw new legislative maps.
The candidate filing deadline to run for office is March 11, and the spring primary election is scheduled for May 17.
You can click here to read all of our redistricting coverage at Idaho Reports.