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‘We will never make everyone happy:’ Idaho redistricting process begins Wednesday

Idaho’s Citizens Commission for Reapportionment is about to begin the redistricting process. This is one of the maps approved in 2011.
Idaho’s Citizens Commission for Reapportionment is about to begin the redistricting process. This is one of the maps approved in 2011.

Commissioners will have 90 days to deliver new maps and plan for legislative, congressional districts

After weeks of anticipation, Idaho’s redistricting process begins Wednesday with three days of meetings at the Statehouse in Boise.

Wednesday’s initial meeting sets off a 90-day timer to redraw Idaho’s legislative and congressional districts.

It will be a delicate and dicey proposition.

Commissioners must meet all sorts of complicated criteria, from dividing as few counties as possible to avoiding oddly-shaped districts, to keeping cities and communities of interest together while still dividing the state into equally-sized districts.

“The touchdown for me would be to be able to draw maps that we can get the commission to agree on that the (Idaho) Supreme Court will say is as good as it can be,” commissioner Dan Schmidt, a former Democratic legislator, said in a telephone interview. “We cannot and we should not, in my opinion, have the goal of making everybody happy because we are not going to.”

The process plays a big role in shaping elections and politics over the next decade. New boundaries can affect which candidates Idahoans are able to vote for and who represents them and their neighbors.

The process will likely lead to some upheaval, as one-time allies in the Legislature may find themselves drafted into the same district as each other — leading to a quick decision of whether to run against each other or step aside.

On top of that, new 2020 census data that the process will be based on was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, setting up a tight timeline where a lawsuit or an unexpected impasse could threaten the schedule of the 2022 primary election, which is planned for May 17.

“It’s going to be interesting and it’s going to be a challenge, and I’m sure we will never make everyone happy,” commissioner Eric Redman, a retired former Republican legislator, said in a telephone interview.

What is redistricting?

Redistricting is the process of redrawing Idaho’s 35 legislative and two congressional districts. The process is required by the U.S. Constitution and the Idaho Constitution.

Redistricting is based on new U.S. Census Bureau data that is collected and released every 10 years. The purpose of redistricting is to make sure representation is proportional across the state. That’s the idea behind the “one person, one vote” principle.

The ideal size for a legislative district based on dividing Idaho’s population into 35 parts is 52,546.

“Our charge is to make sure every person is adequately and fairly represented,” commissioner Thomas Daley told the Idaho Council on Indian Affairs this month.

Idaho was the second-fastest growing state over the past decade, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, but that growth was unequally divided. That’s why the boundaries need to be redrawn.

In most states, the state legislature handles redistricting. Idaho is one of 14 states that uses a bipartisan commission to handle redistricting, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. In 1994, Idaho voters approved a state constitutional amendment that created the bipartisan redistricting commission. Before that, the Idaho Legislature was responsible for redistricting in Idaho.

How are Idaho’s redistricting commissioners approaching this?

For Idaho’s redistricting commission, Democrats appointed three members and Republicans appointed three members. It will take at least four votes (a two-thirds majority) to approve a redistricting plan.

In a telephone interview earlier this month, former Sen. Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said it is important to get the plans right and that he will be committed to working with all of the commissioners “to get to yes.”

“I know I am showing up day one, solution-oriented in my mindset,” Davis said.

To gear up for the assignment, commissioner Nels Mitchell said he reviewed state law, the Idaho Constitution and an Idaho Supreme Court ruling from the previous redistricting commission a decade ago.

“Obviously we’ve had a lot of growth in Idaho, so there will need to be some adjustments, but those adjustments will be made consistent with Idaho statute and the Constitution, as explained in the Twin Falls case and Supreme Court ruling,” Mitchell said in a telephone interview.

Commissioner Amber Pence, who is a special assistant to the Teton County Board of County Commissioners in eastern Idaho, said she is impressed with the geographic representation and experience of the commissioners. Davis, Redman, Schmidt and Daley all served as legislators. Pence has campaign and lobbying experience. Mitchell was a U.S. Senate candidate.

“I think we have a great commission where everybody brings strengths to the table,” Pence said.

How can Idahoans follow the process?

Next week’s meetings at the Statehouse will all be public, and the commission will be able to use Idaho Public Television’s Idaho In Session program to stream the meetings.

Commissioners will also schedule a series of public meetings in locations across the state to accept public comment and feedback. Those regional meetings will likely be discussed or announced this week.

Commissioners said public feedback will help them develop their new maps and plan.

“I am interested in geographic feedback, whether it’s ‘this area is hard to get to’ or ‘I’d like to see us combined with this area,’” Pence said.

Idahoans will also soon have access to the Maptitude software that commissioners will use to draw the new maps. Anyone may draw their own legislative or congressional map and submit it to the commissioners for consideration. Additional details about the map software are expected to be available soon.

Wednesday’s meeting begins at 8:30 a.m.

Thursday and Friday’s meetings begin at 9 a.m.

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state. As longtime Idahoans ourselves, we understand the challenges and opportunities facing Idaho. We provide in-depth reporting on legislative and state policy, health care, tax policy, the environment, Idaho’s explosive population growth and more. Our mission is relentless investigative journalism that sheds light on how decisions in Boise and beyond are made and how they affect everyday Idahoans. We aim to tell untold stories and provide data, context and analysis on the issues that matter most throughout the state. The Capital Sun is part of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. We retain full editorial independence.