Idaho has some problems — our wages are among the lowest in the nation, our teachers are direly underpaid and our infrastructure needs repair. But one big problem we don’t have — at least not yet — is the partisan gerrymandering that has undermined representative democracy in so many other states. Unfortunately, there is a move afoot to bring that problem to Idaho.
Gerrymandering is a term more and more people are becoming familiar with now that over a dozen states have been drawn into costly lawsuits over the legality of their partisan redistricting. Dubbed “the purest form of political bloodsport,” gerrymandering is the practice of redrawing legislative maps to favor one party, candidate or ideology over another. The results can dramatically undermine the principle of “one person one vote.” For example, in Pennsylvania, a state that is close to dead even on party affiliation, the GOP-controlled Legislature drew district lines to give Republicans 13 out of 18 Congressional seats. They turned 50 percent of the vote into 72 percent of the seats. And Democrats have done the same thing to benefit themselves when they have the line-drawing power. Right now, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Maryland are headed to the Supreme Court over their political maps, and many more states are mired in expensive litigation in lower courts.
Idaho, happily, has not had any of these problems since 1994, when the people of Idaho voted overwhelmingly (64 percent) to create the current Independent Redistricting Commission. Idaho’s current system is in fact a model of fairness. The Commission is a bipartisan body, made up of three members from each party. Its work is transparent, allows for public input, and the current district lines we have now were adopted unanimously. There has never been a whiff of impropriety or unfair bias. But now that system is under attack.
The resolution at issue is SJR 105. It would change the makeup of Idaho’s six-member bipartisan commission which draws legislative boundaries after every census into a partisan, gerrymandering machine designed to help powerful incumbent politicians draw themselves safe seats while going after political enemies. While this may help entrench and expand the power of those in control of the process, it does no favors to Idaho voters.
Plotting new maps every ten years has become a devious business. Gone are the days of people poring over maps with pencils and compasses. It’s now done with complicated computer models that can include or exclude voters based on their known voting habits and ideological leanings. Putting this line-drawing power into partisan hands warps the process from one in which voters choose their leaders to one in which leaders choose their voters.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this scheme is emerging. The majority party recently hired an out-of-state “redistricting” specialist from Florida who has a history of partisan manipulation of legislative maps. Frank Terraferma is described as a key player in Florida’s gerrymandering court battles which led to a decision in 2015 that the maps drawn by the majority were unconstitutional. Idaho seems poised to enter that same kind of protracted fight. And if SJR105 doesn’t move forward this year, we can expect a similar gerrymandering scheme to come forward before the 2020 census leads to a new round of redistricting.
Elections have consequences, and it is to be expected that the majority party will use its power to implement its preferred policies. That’s democracy. However, when the majority instead uses its power to rig the system to entrench itself, that’s not democracy — it’s an abuse of power.
Idahoans value fairness in all facets of life, but our votes are especially precious. That’s why we voted, by a landslide, to create an independent, bipartisan Commission to ensure legislative districts are drawn equitably and the sanctity of our vote is preserved. Fairness at the ballot box is the bedrock of our democracy. Now, majority-party politicians are preparing to take a sledge hammer to that foundation. Let your leaders know that Idahoans want to keep our playing field even and our redistricting process free of the scourge of partisan gerrymandering.