Idaho adopts new congressional districts

Idaho's citizen redistricting commission gathers on Monday morning. (Betsy Russell)
Idaho's citizen redistricting commission gathers on Monday morning. (Betsy Russell)

BOISE - Idaho’s bipartisan citizen redistricting commission approved new congressional district lines on Monday, wrapping up its task in less than three weeks and proving the commission process can work.

“I am amazed that three Democrats and three Republicans can get along this well, and we have,” said GOP Co-Chair Dolores Crow, a former longtime state lawmaker from Nampa. “We all really like each other - still. It’s been a real pleasure, a real surprise to me that we can do that.”

The 4-2 vote on new congressional districts followed the commission’s unanimous agreement Friday on a new legislative district plan, one that focuses on keeping cities and counties together, while forcing some prominent incumbent lawmakers, including House Speaker Lawerence Denney, to face other incumbents if they want to keep their seats.

Dividing Idaho into two congressional districts long has meant splitting the state’s highest-population county, Ada County, home of the state capitol of Boise. Though Democrats on the commission pushed hard to put all of Ada County into the 1st Congressional District with North Idaho, while shifting conservative Canyon County into the 2nd District with eastern Idaho, Republican commissioners wouldn’t go along. So Democratic Co-Chairman Ron Beitelspacher of Grangeville voted with the Republicans to approve a plan that again splits Ada County between the two districts, just shifting the dividing line to the west to reflect population shifts.

Beitelspacher said he cast the vote “reluctantly,” saying, “I spent a lot of time in the Legislature, and I’ve had some wonderful pieces of legislation, but if you haven’t got the votes, they’re not going to pass. I can count.”

Crow said, “It doesn’t change it so radically. That’s a big chunk of people to move around.”

The new congressional district plan, plan C-52, is similar to one approved by Idaho’s previous redistricting commission after its September deadline had passed. “We just cleaned it up a little bit,” Beitelspacher said.

Gary Moncrief, a redistricting expert and political scientist at Boise State University, said the new congressional lines seem to make sense, and the new legislative district plan did a “nice job” of creating compact districts that preserve cities and other communities. “Most of the districts just look more compact and kind of cleaner than they did before,” he said.

After the previous commission couldn’t agree on new plans before its 90-day deadline, some in Idaho began calling for returning the job of drawing new district lines to state lawmakers themselves, though Idaho voters changed the state Constitution in 1994 to do away with that in favor of a bipartisan citizen commission.

“This group has certainly demonstrated that it can work,” Moncrief said.

The legislative district plan forces two North Idaho GOP senators, Shawn Keough of Sandpoint and Joyce Broadsword of Sagle, to face off in May’s Republican primary if both want to stay in office, as both landed in the new District 1. It also places three House incumbents, Reps. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries; Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow; and Tom Trail, R-Moscow; in a new District 5 that includes both Latah and Benewah counties, but has just two House seats.

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