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Redistricting committee likely to split North Idaho counties for legislative districts

UPDATED: Tue., Aug. 31, 2021

By William L. Spence Lewiston Tribune

An initial review of 2020 census data indicates Latah, Nez Perce or Idaho county almost certainly will be split between multiple legislative districts during this year’s redistricting process.

The odd geography and differential population growth in North Idaho – combined with court rulings that limit how legislative districts can be created – means the Idaho Commission on Reapportionment has few options in redrawing district boundaries in this part of the state.

The result, according to several people who have looked at the census numbers, is that one of the three counties in north-central Idaho will have to be split. The question is, which one?

“I don’t think we’re going to make many people happy,” said former state Sen. Dan Schmidt, one of six appointees to the redistricting commission.

The commission holds its inaugural meeting Wednesday in Boise. That kicks off a 90-day timeline for the three Democrats and three Republicans on the panel to complete their work.

Their job is to produce two maps: one that divides the state into 35 legislative districts of approximately equal population, and a second that divides it into two congressional districts.

Several statutory and constitutional considerations govern the redistricting process. Previous court rulings, for example, limit the maximum population gap between the largest and smallest legislative districts to 10%.

Congressional districts, by contrast, have to be as nearly exact in population as possible.

Another major consideration, according to a 2012 Idaho Supreme Court ruling, is that county splits must be avoided to the maximum extent possible. That means commissioners can’t take a chunk out of one county and combine it with neighboring counties to form a district unless there’s no other option.

If one redistricting map has more county splits than another, Schmidt said, it won’t pass legal muster, no matter what other advantages it may offer.

“The court says we have to respect counties,” he said.

Based on the 2020 census numbers, Kootenai, Bannock, Bonneville, Canyon and Twin Falls counties automatically have to be split. It’s mathematically impossible to divide them into a whole number of legislative districts and still meet the 10% cap on population differential. There will necessarily be a remainder left over that has to be combined with a neighboring county or counties.

Ada County historically has been a sixth automatic split, but that could change this year. Theoretically, it could be divided into nine whole districts, with no remainder, although all nine districts would exceed the ideal population size by nearly 5% .

Bonner County is another automatic split because of North Idaho’s unique geography. Because Boundary County doesn’t have enough population to form a district by itself, it has to pull in population from its neighbor to the south.

Given the differential population growth over the past decade, it also now appears that another county split will be needed in north-central Idaho.

“I think either Latah or Nez Perce county will get split. And if you split Nez Perce, you wind up having to split Lewiston,” said Michael Brown, a Troy attorney who has been using the Dave’s Redistricting online site for the past several weeks to produce his own redistricting maps.

The basic problem, Brown said, is that Kootenai County “grew like gangbusters” over the past decade, while north-central Idaho saw much slower growth.

“Some of the districts have to get bigger. They won’t work otherwise,” he said.

For example, the 7th Legislative District – which includes Idaho, Clearwater and Shoshone counties and a small portion of Bonner County – had the slowest growth rate of any legislative district in Idaho from 2010 to 2020. It now falls thousands of people short of the ideal district size .

Similarly, the 6th Legislative District, which includes Nez Perce and Lewis counties, had the third-lowest growth rate.

Contrast that with the 3rd District, which includes Post Falls and southwestern Kootenai County. It had the fourth-highest growth rate in the state, and now has about 8,000 people more than the ideal district size.

Trying to redistribute the regional population in a way that satisfies the 10% maximum population gap, while respecting county lines, is the redistricting commission’s unenviable task.

Keith Bybee, the deputy manager of the Legislature’s budget office and resident redistricting expert, agreed that Latah or Nez Perce counties are likely candidates for a split.

He also added Idaho County to the list.

“Those are the three decision points,” he said. “Because of the disparity in population, I don’t see how you get out of splitting (one of those three counties).”

Based on the census numbers, the three options could look something like this:

Option 1: Split Nez Perce County

This produces a reasonable geographic division, in which part of Nez Perce County combines with Lewis, Clearwater and Idaho counties to form a single district.

The problem is that the resulting district would have a population that’s about 5.13% above the ideal district size.

The only way that works is if the 1st Legislative District and all three districts in Kootenai County are limited to about 50,000 people, which is 4.85% below the ideal district size.

Shoshone, Benewah and the remaining portion of Kootenai County could then form a district, while Latah and the remainder of Nez Perce County would form another district.

However, this map essentially sets the minimum and maximum district size for the entire state, because of the 9.98% population difference between the largest and smallest districts.

Option 2: Split Latah County

This would combine a portion of Latah County with Benewah and part of Kootenai County into one district, while adding the remainder of Latah to Nez Perce and Lewis counties to form another district.

The 7th District would stay essentially the same, although it would also pick up a portion of Kootenai County.

Option 3: Split Idaho County

This is similar to Option 2, except all of Latah and Benewah counties would be combined with a portion of Kootenai County to form a district.

Nez Perce and Lewis counties would then pick up a portion of Idaho County to form a district. The remainder of Idaho County would stay in the 7th District, which would compensate for the loss by grabbing a bigger chunk of Kootenai County.

A major advantage of this option is that the gap between the largest and smallest districts in the region would be less than 5%.

That would give the redistricting commission much more flexibility in dividing the remainder of the state.

Wednesday’s redistricting commission meeting begins at 8:30 a.m. PDT. It will be streamed live online on the Idaho in Session website, at idahoptv.org/shows/idahoinsession.

The first meeting will be primarily a review of the history of redistricting in Idaho, and of the statutory and constitutional requirements.

The commission also meets on Thursday and Friday, beginning at 8 a.m. PDT each day.

According to the agendas, they’ll get training in the mapping software Thursday, and approve a public hearing schedule that includes visits to communities across the state.

On Friday, commissioners will actually start drawing maps, trying to fit the puzzle pieces together.

Further information regarding the Idaho Commission on Reapportionment can be found online, at legislature.idaho.gov/redistricting/2021.

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