The Idaho Legislature convenes tomorrow and early attention is likely to be given to plans for legislative redistricting following the 2020 Census.
Everyone knows Idaho has grown sharply in population in the past decade, when the current 35 districts were set, each with about 45,000 people. With an estimated population of 1.8 million in 2020, up almost 15 percent since 2010, we’re one of the fastest growing states in the nation.
But as everyone also knows, the growth in Idaho has been uneven. More urban including Twin Falls, have grown the most, as have Coeur d’Alene, the Treasure Valley, Pocatello and Idaho Falls. Smaller and more remote communities, not so much.
There are a number of ideas about how the redistricting process should unfold, whether for example, Idaho should expand the number of districts from 35 to 40, thereby keeping districts at about 45,000 each.
But before district size is even addressed, the process of how we do redistricting will be an early consideration. Currently, Idaho has a six-member redistricting commission, divided equally between Democrats and Republicans. (Legislature.Idaho.gov/redistricting/). This structure dates from the early 1990s when then Democratic Gov. Cecil Andrus and more Democratic legislators had the clout to get Democrats parity, despite Idaho generally trending more conservative at that time.
Now, Democrats are vastly outnumbered in the state’s elected ranks (Republicans have more than 80 percent of legislative seats) and Democrats haven’t elected a governor since Andrus retired in 1994. So they will fight tooth-and-nail to maintain a structure which benefits them, they think, with what little representation they retain.
That’s why you can be sure that any proposal to change the commission to better reflect the state’s politics as they are a generation later today will be fought hard by Democrats who know that adding a seventh member would effectively end their manipulation of the current process.
Ironically, the current structure hasn’t helped the Democrats much, if at all. They have fewer seats now than in the 1990s, and little prospect of huge gains, given Idaho’s dominant politics.
Since any redistricting plan needs four of the six votes, the current commission effectively gives Democrats a veto over a legislative process that’s both unrepresentative of the Legislature well as of the state’s political profile. It’s a form of hidden Gerrymandering power.
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Democrat leaders will cite how the state is already “tilted” toward Republicans, so they should retain the current structure as an element of simple “fairness.” But in fact, it serves no useful purpose except to protect minority seats.
A good example of this is in District 26, which includes four counties: Lincoln, Gooding, Camas and Blaine. The first three are generally GOP-leaning counties, but they are outweighed by lefty Wood River Blainers from Hailey to Ketchum, one of Idaho’s few Clinton/Obama pockets.
Democrats will fight hard to maintain Blaine’ perceived dominance in whatever district 26 plan is proposed, but to do so, they’ll need to bet back efforts to change the commission’s structure. So you can expect loud cries from both the party and their media buddies.
Yet, this Dem-Gerrymandering approach hasn’t given them any demonstrable strength outside of their isolated “islands.” Idaho’s growth has been spurred with, (Yep, ‘tis true) more Republicans moving here from more liberal places where Democrats have damaged both economies and personal freedoms.
That’s got to be frustrating. Despite being able to rig the redistricting process for decades, they’ve gone backwards in legislative seats. Guess they keep hoping the state will somehow turn magically “blue” or at least purple, but in election after election, Idaho’s GOP continues to dominate.
Local returns bear this out. In the 2018 governor’s race for example, GOP candidate Brad Little carried 40 of Idaho’s 44 counties, many by wide margins, more than 130,000 votes statewide. In the Magic Valley, he carried all but two precincts across seven counties, again by wide margins.
Following the 2010 Census, with Democrats holding out for preferred islands of support, Dems thought they might be able to turn local races by making Twin Falls city a “donut hole” district. But GOP dominance continued apace. I held one of the GOP House seats for a decade (2008-2018) and while Dems made furious challenges, they never came close. None of my local GOP seatmates ever faced a significant Dem challenge.
Dem-Gerrymandering is not likely to change the state’s basic voting patterns. Governmental representation in Idaho, as elsewhere, is closely aligned with voters’ cultural values. Given the direction of their national and state parties, (See Dems Congress’ impeachment fiasco), Democrats aren’t likely to have much resonance in Idaho in 2020, or beyond.