BOISE - Idaho’s Supreme Court overturned the state’s new legislative redistricting plan Wednesday, ordering a citizen commission back to work and throwing into doubt the state’s schedule for its May primary election.
Thursday morning, a House committee will consider legislation to push the May primary back to August; the bill is sponsored by Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, chairman of the House State Affairs Committee.
Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, the state’s chief election officer, said, “We’re not jumping up and down opposing a move to August.” But, he said, “I happen to believe May’s a better time for an election than August, in the middle of the summer, just with people on vacation.”
The filing period for Idaho’s May 15 primary opens on Feb. 27; every seat in the Legislature is up for election this year, and the state’s majority Republican Party will be holding its first-ever closed primary, with only registered party members allowed to vote.
The redistricting decision further compresses the timing to prepare for that election; now, candidates don’t know in which districts they’re to file, or who they’d be running against. Still, Ysursa said the state’s citizen redistricting commission is gearing up to meet next week.
“I think the court’s majority decision gave the guidance that they will follow,” Ysursa said. “It’s going to be a plan that has the minimum number of county splits.”
He said if the commission acts quickly and there are no further challenges, Idaho could meet its deadlines for a May primary. “We’ve done it before,” he said. “We had this going on in ‘84 during the week of filing, and actually the court had to extend filing by a week. Now, that’s not the goal.”
The high court justices said the current plan, L-87, divided more counties between legislative districts than was strictly necessary to meet federal constitutional requirements for equalizing population between districts.
“If one plan that complies with the federal constitution divides eight counties and another that also complies divides nine counties, then the extent that counties must be divided in order to comply with the federal constitution is only eight counties,” wrote Justice Daniel Eismann in the 4-1 decision. “It could not be said that dividing one more county was necessary to comply with the Constitution.”
Kootenai County was among a group of counties and cities, led by Twin Falls County, that challenged the plan; both Kootenai and Twin Falls counties were divided in the plan. Twin Falls County was divided among three districts; Kootenai has enough people for multiple districts within the county, but a chunk of that county was added on to a large new District 7 that stretched to the south.
Several other North Idaho counties joined a separate challenge to the redistricting plan that was scheduled for arguments on Thursday, but the justices declared that case moot in light of their Wednesday decision.
The Idaho Constitution, in Article III, Section 5, says that counties may be divided among legislative districts only to the extent necessary to comply with the U.S. Constitution, whose one-person, one-vote rule requires that districts be apportioned by population; a population deviation between legislative districts of more than 10 percent is presumed to be unconstitutional.
Justice Jim Jones, in a 14-page dissent, differed with the majority on the court, writing, “If this Court imposes a strict requirement that the Commission adopt whatever plan meets the ten percent population deviation and produces the lowest possible number of county splits, the Commission’s jurisdiction will be limited to the point that it will have no realistic function.”
Ysursa expressed some sympathy with that view. He said when Idahoans voted to amend their state constitution to take the redistricting job away from the Legislature and give it to a citizen commission, they wanted the commission to have leeway to consider local concerns, communities of interest and the like. The commission holds hearings around the state to gather that input.
“Justice Jones talks about the human element,” Ysursa noted. “Yet he was in the minority. So it’s kind of a mathematical exercise now.”
Ysursa has legislation of his own up for introduction on Thursday to eliminate Idaho’s presidential primary election in May, because both parties in Idaho now choose their presidential delegates by caucuses. Both his bill and Loertscher’s will be considered in Loertscher’s committee.
Idaho had its primary election in August until 1980, when it was moved up to May to better fit the presidential election schedule.
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