Deadlocked Idaho redistricters miss deadline

Redistricting Commissioners Lou Esposito, left, Lorna Finman, center, and Julie Kane, right, confer during a break in the commission's proceedings Tuesday afternoon, a scant hour before their deadline for drawing new legislative and congressional districts. (Betsy Russell)
Redistricting Commissioners Lou Esposito, left, Lorna Finman, center, and Julie Kane, right, confer during a break in the commission's proceedings Tuesday afternoon, a scant hour before their deadline for drawing new legislative and congressional districts. (Betsy Russell)

BOISE - Idaho’s bipartisan citizen redistricting commission failed Tuesday to agree on new legislative and congressional districts by its constitutionally-set deadline, forcing the issue into the courts.

“I think the citizens of the state are going to be disgusted that we cannot get to a solution here when we’re down to just a handful of areas,” GOP Commissioner Lorna Finman of Rathdrum pleaded as the clock ticked away Tuesday. “We are so close on this map. … There needed to be a little give and take.”

“It’s a shame that we couldn’t get there,” said GOP Co-Chairman Evan Frasure of Pocatello.

Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa said he’s ready to sue first thing Wednesday morning, filing a writ of mandamus with the Idaho Supreme Court. “Papers are prepared,” he said.

Without new legislative and congressional district lines, Idaho has lines from 10 years ago that don’t reflect the big population shifts since then - and therefore don’t comply with the U.S. Constitution’s one-person, one-vote rule. That means the state’s current districts are unconstitutional; Ysursa said he expects the court to order the commission back to work.

Finman and Democratic Commissioner Julie Kane of Lapwai reached agreement early Tuesday on a new legislative district plan for North Idaho that drew praise from all the other commissioners, but the panel wasn’t ready to vote on just that piece without agreement on the rest of the state.

That plan would force North Idaho Sens. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, and Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, into a face-off in the GOP primary if both want to stay in office; it’d also put several current incumbent House members from North Idaho into competition with each other. But the plan won praise as being reflective of public testimony from North Idaho about how new district lines should be drawn.

The North Idaho compromise plan doesn’t split precincts and doesn’t violate the rule that districts must be connected by highways. GOP Commissioner Lou Esposito said, “Thank you, Commissioner Kane, Commissioner Finman. I think this has clearly demonstrated the ability to find resolution within the context of what we’re trying to accomplish here. I believe if we go back and look at the testimony that we received up north, that it gives incredible weight to that testimony and I applaud both of you.”

Finman and Kane, the only two women on the six-member panel, offered over the weekend to mediate between the feuding male members, and their offer was welcomed, as the panel worked through the holiday. Democratic Co-Chairman Allen Andersen said he liked the idea, saying it would “get all of the testosterone out of it.” GOP Commissioner Lou Esposito said, “If that’s what it takes, I’m all for it.”

But even that mediation failed to bring the two sides together in time. By Tuesday afternoon, Esposito was publicly calling a Democratic proposal for legislative district lines in Ada County “an abomination,” and “the definition of gerrymander.” Democratic Commissioner George Moses blamed the Republicans for the breakdown.

The commission is evenly spit between Republicans and Democrats, unlike Idaho’s Legislature, which is 80 percent Republican, and used to draw new district lines behind closed doors each decade after the new census. In 1994, Idaho voters amended the state constitution to take that task out of lawmakers’ hands and give it to a bipartisan citizen commission, which is meeting publicly and which held hearings around the state before trying its hand at new maps.

The first commission, a decade ago, reached a plan in 76 days, but it was overturned in court amid multiple lawsuits; in the end, that commission settled on a plan that held, but included unpopular sprawling districts in North Idaho and southeastern Idaho. The state Constitution sets a 90-day limit.

Current legislative districts, after the new 2010 census, have a 96 percent variation in population, far more than permitted. Idaho’s two current congressional districts now have a 14.8 percent deviation in population; new congressional districts must evenly split the state population, with virtually no deviation.

“It’s obviously out of sync with the Constitution,” Ysursa said. “I’m confident we will have a commission plan - obviously now it looks like it will be later, rather than sooner.”

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