Idaho is about to embark on a political bloodsport that only comes around once a decade.
In response to population changes mapped by the 2010 Census, the state will reshape the boundaries of the 35 districts that 105 state legislators represent. Each district’s borders will adjust to reflect population shifts — growth and decline — throughout the state, in order to give each legislator a similar population to represent.
Idaho’s population growth has centered largely upon urban areas like the Treasure Valley, which means that ultimately, representation in rural Idaho will be diminished with fewer districts. The Magic Valley’s five legislative districts could shrink to just four when district lines are redrawn, which would mean three fewer legislators would represent the region in 2013.
The biggest changes to be brought by redistricting remain to be seen. The Gem State’s population has grown to 1.57 million people since 2000, a 21 percent increase. But 73 percent of that growth was concentrated in four counties, while seven others lost population.
Changes in districts will depend on which geographical direction smaller districts have to grow in to include more people, and how oversized districts will shrink. That decision-making won’t start until June, when the state’s six-member Commission on Reapportionment begins meeting.
With three Republicans and three Democrats appointed to the commission, compromise is needed for any plan to get the four-vote majority it needs to pass.
“The Republican and Democratic split by necessity makes it an interesting process, because to get anything done you can’t just stick to a political line,” said Ray Givens, a former commission member who worked on redistricting in 2001. “Somebody’s got to cross and vote with the other side.”
Still, every legislative district will look different when the task is finished — some more than others.
“There are going to have to be some different boundaries,” said Wayne Hurst, a farmer and chairman of the Cassia County Republican Party. “For those of us in the rural areas, it’s going to be a challenge to still be able to send good solid folks to Boise.”
The urban-rural spit
Any shift to Idaho’s political boundaries can carry far-reaching implications. For example, an area that saw slower population growth in the last decade — like District 27, which covers Cassia County and reaches into eastern Idaho — will need to grow its geographical size to reach a large enough population. With 38,757 residents now, District 27 will need to expand to include between 42,548 and 47,024 residents, the range all districts must hit.
That’s where redistricting gets dicey. If the district’s lines were moved into Minidoka County, for example, longtime colleagues like Sen. Denton Darrington, R-Declo, and Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, could have to decide whether to run against each other.
Of course, Darrington’s district could expand elsewhere, allowing both senators to keep their seats.
Another possibility: The city of Twin Falls, population 44,125, could become its own district, instead of feeding into two districts as it does now. Or District 23, which extends from Twin Falls to the state’s western border, could encroach upon Jerome and Gooding counties if other districts extend into its vast Owyhee County borders.
“We’re going to lose rural legislators, there’s no doubt about that,” said Rep. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls. “And we’ll gain urban legislators, and that doesn’t necessarily mean less conservative, but it does mean it’s a different background.”
The commission cannot add more legislative districts beyond the existing 35. The state’s constitution allows between 30 and 35 districts, so the commission technically could reduce the 35-district configuration. But that’s unlikely, given Idaho’s population growth and past tradition.
“If you reduce the number of seats, you’re going to have a bunch of cranky legislators on your hands,” Givens said, jokingly adding that the upside would be shorter legislative sessions because of fewer lawmakers talking.
Old friends, new rivals?
Idaho’s geography also creates challenges for redistricting, said Gary Moncrief, a political science professor at Boise State University. It’s an oddly shaped state, and there are also mountain ranges between communities to take into account.
“Drawing the lines is difficult,” he said. “You have to kind of start in one corner of the state and end up in another corner of the state.”
The public can have a role too. Software on the commission’s website will allow residents to map their own district ideas and turn ideas on for consideration.
The technology wasn’t as readily available 10 years ago, so that advancement will add another dimension of input to redistricting efforts.
“There will be a lot of participation and a lot of thought going into it, which is really good,” said Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, who appointed Givens to last decade’s redistricting commission when she was House minority leader.
Once the work is done, lawmakers will have to decide whether to run in a new district. If Cameron finds himself in Darrington’s district, he plans to talk it over with his colleague before deciding if he’d run against him.
“We’d have to sit down and discuss it,” Cameron said, adding that it’s too soon to know what the boundaries will be. “I believe that the lines can be drawn in a way that would allow us to retain those seats.”
Others are planning to run again, regardless of what redistricting brings.
Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, said there are concerns that redistricting could decrease Mini-Cassia’s legislative representation, but he added that it’s too early to point to any outcome. He’s planning another run in 2012.
“I certainly intend to run for re-election again, so if I run into an incumbent — well, we’ll do battle,” he said.
Rep. Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, plans to run again too.
“I’ve told people that ask me, ‘I’m running wherever I’m put,’” he said. “My name’s going to be in the ring.”
House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said that while the district lines may change, the values of the region will remain the same.
“I think a pragmatic, fiscally responsible legislator in the Magic Valley will do well in whatever the redistricting looks like,” he said. “Those values reflect the values of the Magic Valley.”
Ben Botkin may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 735-3238.