With the clock ticking, Idaho’s redistricting process is about to get under way
Clark Corbin, Idaho Capital Sun
BOISE (Idaho Captial Sun) – Idaho is about a month away from beginning a redistricting process that will have far-reaching effects on politics and elections in the Gem State for the next decade.
Idaho’s Citizen Committee on Reapportionment is expected to convene its first meeting in September to begin the process of redrawing legislative and congressional boundaries.
The process occurs every 10 years following the U.S. Census.
The commission will hold public meetings around the state and have Idaho Public Television’s Idaho In Session service available to stream its meetings online.
Normally a tense and turbulent affair by its nature, this year’s process is especially delicate. A tight timeline and the constant threat of a lawsuit that state officials have already warned about make it so the schedule of the 2022 primary election could be somewhat in doubt if the new maps and boundaries are challenged or the process is gridlocked.
What is redistricting and why are we doing it now?
Redistricting is the process of redrawing the state’s 35 legislative districts and two congressional districts using new data that is expected to be released today by the U.S. Census Bureau. While the Gem State has experienced explosive growth over the last 10 years, Idaho is not gaining a new Congressional district this time.
The process is required under the U.S. Constitution and the Idaho Constitution to ensure political representation is proportional.
There are all kinds of complicated considerations in Idaho law — sometimes in apparent opposition to each other — for commissioners to consider. They must divide the state into equal districts based on population sizes, but they are also expected to keep counties whole, avoid separating communities of interest such as cities and neighborhoods, avoid drawing oddly shaped districts and avoid splitting counties to protect a political party or incumbent.
Idaho uses an independent bipartisan redistricting commission comprising six members appointed by leaders and elected officials from the state’s two largest political parties, the Republicans and Democrats.
The six members were recently appointed and their job is to draw the new maps and boundaries that will be in place for the next 10 years.
This is only the third time the process is being handled this way in Idaho. Until 1994, the Idaho Legislature was responsible for redistricting. In 1993, the Legislature passed Senate Joint Resolution 105, an amendment to the Idaho Constitution that created the bipartisan redistricting commission. Idaho voters approved SJR 105 on Election Day 1994, with 64% in favor and 36% against.
Who are the commissioners?
- Former U.S. Attorney and former Republican state Sen. Bart Davis.
- Former Republican state Rep. Eric Redman.
- Former Republican state Rep. Thomas Daley.
- Former Democratic state Sen. Dan Schmidt.
- Former Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Nels Mitchell.
- Teton County Board of County Commissioners special assistant Amber Pence, a Democratic appointee.
It will require a vote of four commissioners (or two-thirds of the commission) to approve a redistricting plan.
Is timing a factor with the 2022 primary elections coming up?
In short, timing is a big factor, largely because the 2022 party primary elections are scheduled by law for the third Friday in May, which works out to May 17, 2022.
The redistricting process is already off to a late start because data from the U.S. Census Bureau isn’t expected until this week, due to COVID-19 related delays and prioritizing the delivery of Congressional apportionment data. The last time the state went through this process, a decade ago, the state received the census data on March 10, 2011.
Once the commission holds its first meeting, the clock starts and the commission has 90 days to complete its maps, boundaries and plan.
“It’s more important for us to get it right than to get it done quickly,” Davis, one of the redistricting commission members, said in a telephone interview. “It is also very important we get it done as soon as possible. I know I am showing up on day one, solution-oriented in my mindset.”
Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane said there is a ton of work by county clerks and state and local elections officials that will take place after the redistricting commission approves its maps and boundaries.
In Ada County, the state’s most populated county, that means manually going through the maps in great detail to verify where every home address in the county falls, validating that and assigning each house to the proper legislative district.
McGrane was heavily involved in the previous redistricting process in 2011-2012.
“It was a monumental lift,” he said in a phone interview.
There are a couple of key deadlines McGrane will keep in mind. The 2022 candidate declaration filing period opens Feb. 28 2022, the 12th Monday before the primary election. In order for candidates to know which district to file for, the redistricting maps and boundaries would likely need to be finalized by Feb. 25, McGrane said.
Absentee ballots with the correct candidates and districts would also need to be printed up to be mailed out in late March or early April 2022, McGrane said.
“If the commission starts in September and, let’s say, takes 90 days and finishes around Christmas, we would use January and February to do all the updates and get it done,” McGrane said. “You can see with that window how tight that is already. Any delays and then I don’t know what.”
If the process plays out in a similar fashion to how it did in 2011, it doesn’t seem possible for Idaho to hold its primary election on time. A decade ago, the first redistricting commission met from June to September 2011 but adjourned without agreeing on boundaries.
A second redistricting commission was appointed and met in September and October and was able to quickly approve legislative and congressional boundaries.
However, a lawsuit challenging the redistricting plan was filed in Idaho Supreme Court in November and arguments were heard in January 2012, seven months after the first redistricting commission held its first meeting.
Idaho just doesn’t have seven months to work with because of the late start this year.
If things are delayed this time, the Idaho Legislature may have to pass emergency legislation during the 2022 session to move the date of the primary election. Under existing Idaho law, elections are only allowed four times a year in Idaho, in March, May, August and November.
Davis said he pledges “to get to ‘yes’ and to work with my fellow commissioners, regardless of their appointing authority, in a way that is even handed.”
How will the new maps affect Idaho voters?
Depending on where they live, the new maps and boundaries will affect Idahoans in many ways.
District boundaries will change in many places. That means many Idahoans might have a different set of state legislators representing them, even if the same legislators they are used to voting for are running for re-election. For fewer Idahoans, the changes could also mean they will be drawn into a new congressional district.
Depending on the county they live in, Idahoans may also see their precinct or polling place change before the 2022 primaries.
In short, even Idahoans who are used to voting in every election and have not moved may still see changes to the district they live in and the candidates running to represent them.
Based on U.S. Census Bureau estimates, state officials expect several changes compared to the current districts, which are heavily outdated because of Idaho’s rapid population growth.
“Based on census estimates right now, you can draw a map that has seven counties split for legislative district maps,” said Keith Bybee, the deputy division manager for budget and policy for the Legislative Services Office, who will help staff the redistricting commission.
Those counties are Bonner, Kootenai, Canyon, Ada, Twin Falls, Bannock and Bonneville.
Based on a state population, the ideal population size for a legislative district is 52,546 people if all 35 districts are equal.
Based on those estimates and population figures, there could be a couple of tricky spots with significant changes compared to the existing boundaries.
The Treasure Valley area of Ada and Canyon counties is likely to pick up an additional legislative district, Bybee said. That would come at the expenses of another part of the state that hasn’t grown as much.
Bingham County is no longer the ideal size for a legislative district by itself because it hasn’t grown as fast, Bybee said. It would need to draw population from another nearby county.
Up north, in the current legislative district 5, Nez Perce and Lewis counties haven’t grown fast enough to remain the ideal size for a legislative district, Bybee said.
“Taking those two things into consideration at the same time, if you can only split seven counties and the Treasure Valley has grown so much faster than the rest of the state, it’s really going to send those ripple effects across the state for how to reconfigure districts,” Bybee said.
The congressional map could, potentially, prove simpler because there is only one boundary line that needs to be drawn. The ideal size for a congressional district in Idaho is 919,533 people, Bybee said.
How will the new maps affect political candidates?
The process can really get interesting for legislators, who may find themselves drawn into the same district as a long-time ally — forcing some tough decisions on short notice.
“For some of them, if past is prologue, they are probably going to have to run against a colleague that is in the Legislature,” Davis said. “That has happened historically with redistricting, whether with the commission or even when the Legislature had it (under its control).
“Every time the commission released a plan for comment, I admit I looked at it and I looked with interest,” Davis added. “It can be filled with a little angst throughout that process, quite normally. It can be a bit troubling at times if you are a sitting elected official in the Legislature.”
What can we expect the process to look like
Commissioners were scheduled to participate in a telephone call Wednesday with Legislative Services Office analysts who will help staff the commission. That phone call is not the first meeting of the redistricting commission, which state officials said will likely take place after Labor Day in September but will be up to the commissioners to schedule.
“We are going to push as hard as we can,” said Bybee, the analyst from the Legislative Services Office.
There will be several opportunities for the public to get involved. The commission will hold public meetings around the state to accept testimony or feedback on its plans.
Idahoans will also be allowed to use the same Maptitude software that the commissioners have access to draw and submit their own maps for consideration or feedback.