Idaho isn’t on the list of states afflicted by partisan gerrymandering, and never has been. But that could change, and it could affect who gets elected to the Idaho Legislature.
Back in the day, when Idaho legislators redrew district maps, there was some caution about going very far in pressing party advantage; partisanship was less hyper then, and the split between the two major parties was not so great. And after frustrating attempts to do the job in the 1990s, the legislature and then voters in 1994 passed a constitutional amendment turning redistricting over to a commission. It has been a genuinely bipartisan commission, with equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats, and it has functioned not always easily but generally well ever since.
It might be bipartisan no more if a new proposed constitutional amendment clears the legislature and the voters. It would keep the commission but increase the number of members from six to nine, and the odd – presumably decisive – member would be picked by the legislative council. Since 1960, and into the foreseeable future, that council has been Republican-controlled, so strongly partisan mapmaking of the Pennsylvania or North Carolina variety could at least be on the table. The Senate State Affairs Committee has cleared the measure on (surprise!) party-line vote.
So what difference might it make?
One reason Idaho has had little by way of gerrymandering may be the overall disparity between the parties in the state. In many of the most-gerrymandered states, such as Pennsylvania and North Carolina, the two parties are much closer in overall voting support. Idaho, of course, is not like that. I’ve examined Idaho legislative and congressional maps over several decades, and one obvious conclusion is that there isn’t much way – even if a highly partisan Democrat could unilaterally impose whatever map he drew – to significantly reduce the number of Republican districts, congressional or state, in favor of Democratic. An interactive map on the website fivethirtyeight.com has an option for showing the congressional districts’ lines in each state that, for example, most favor Republicans and most favor Democrats (based on past votes). For Idaho, those maps look different, but in both cases Republicans still are overwhelmingly favored in both districts.
The state legislative situation is a little different.
The reason is partly that there are so many Republican voters overall, and partly that so many of Idaho’s Democrats are clumped into small geographic places.
Scattered Democrats can be found all over, even in the rural east and rural north, but numbers substantial enough to win even local district elections can be found in only a few places. Boise city is the largest; other groupings can be found in the centers of most of the larger cities and in a few other places such as the Wood River and Teton valleys. Here’s what redistricting could do: Break up those few Democratic outposts by diluting them with surrounding Republican territory, and nearly eliminate Democrats from Idaho Legislature.
Four legislative districts in Boise lean strongly toward Democrats. Those districts are surrounded by Republican territory. It wouldn’t be especially hard to wipe out at least a couple, maybe three, of those districts by slicing the city and the surrounding parts of Ada County as well. There’s one Democratic legislator left in northern Idaho, elected largely on the strength of a Democratic base at Moscow. Slice Moscow into two districts, central Coeur d’Alene as well, and no more Democrats. You could do the same thing to the Wood River Valley, which now anchors a district represented by two Democratic legislators. Split the valley and they’re gone.
What would be the practical effect? Instead of 17 Democrats, maybe a half-dozen would be left. If that. Out of 105.
If the current level of Republican domination in Idaho isn’t enough for you, the Idaho Legislature may send you your answer this fall.