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Pressure is on to redraw map of Idaho districts

UPDATED: Wed., July 14, 2021

By William L. Spence Lewistone Tribune

Idaho’s Citizen Commission for Reapportionment hasn’t been named yet, but it’s already under pressure to redraw the state’s legislative and congressional district boundaries as quickly as possible.

That was the clear message from Tuesday’s Legislative Council meeting in Boise, where lawmakers were updated on preparations for the coming redistricting effort.

“There ought to be a sense of urgency, not only in our staff but in the commission itself, to get their work done,” said Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R- Boise.

Keith Bybee, deputy director of the legislative budget office, said the state expects to receive the 2020 census reapportionment data by mid-August. That’s several months later than normal, because of delays stemming from last year’s coronavirus pandemic.

The late start raises a couple of potential problems.

First, to be eligible to run for office, political candidates must reside in their district at least a year before the general election. That means if new redistricting maps aren’t approved before Nov. 8, incumbent legislators who find themselves in the same district as another incumbent wouldn’t be able to avoid a head-to-head battle. They couldn’t move to another district, because they won’t have time to meet the one-year residency requirement.

That may not be a big concern for voters, but it is for lawmakers. Several members of the Legislative Council asked about it.

Secondly, any delay in completing the redistricting process could affect next year’s candidate filing period, which typically takes place in late February or early March.

The redistricting commission has 90 days to complete its work. Consequently, even with the late arrival of the reapportionment data, it should be done by mid-December at the latest.

It’s not uncommon, though, for redistricting maps to be challenged in court. If that happens, it would likely push the process into next year.

“That has the potential to really foul up the filing deadline,” Bybee said.

Given the tight timelines, Winder wants the commission to work as fast as possible.

“To me that’s the whole strategy we ought to be developing,” he said. “How do we get this done as quickly as possible, in a constitutional manner, and get it to where it’s ready to be submitted?”

Bybee noted that Idaho has already received the 2020 census statewide population count. That figure is 1,839,106.

The reapportionment data arriving in August will break that down by county, city and precinct. Those detailed numbers are what the commission will use to redraw the congressional and legislative district boundaries. The goal is to try to equalize the population between districts, so voters have roughly equal representation regardless of where they live.

Several factors come into play when redrawing district boundaries. For example, the Idaho Supreme Court has said counties can’t be split between districts unless absolutely necessary. Similarly, communities of interest should be maintained to the largest extent possible.

The most important factor, though, is population.

Idaho’s two congressional districts, for example, can’t vary in population by more than a few people. The state’s 35 legislative districts, by contrast, have a little more leeway; the difference between the smallest and largest districts in the state can vary by up to 10 percent.

Given the statewide population of 1,839,106, Bybee said the “ideal” size for its two congressional districts is 919,553.

“That makes Idaho the second-largest in the country, by population,” he said. “Only Delaware, which is a single congressional district, has more people that they’re representing.”

The ideal legislative district will have 52,546 people. With the 10 percent margin, though, the largest and smallest districts can vary by as much as 5,255 people.

That means big changes be in store for north central Idaho.

Based on preliminary census estimates, Bybee said the population of the 5th Legislative District — which includes Latah and Benewah counties — is about 7 percent less than the ideal district size. The 6th Legislative District, which includes Nez Perce and Lewis counties, is about 8 percent less.

Leaving those two districts intact would mean no other district in the state could exceed the ideal district size by more than 2 percent. Otherwise, the 10 percent cap would be exceeded.

“That creates problems elsewhere in the state,” Bybee said.

The only alternative is for one or both districts to grab population from surrounding counties, to get closer to the ideal district size — or to break them up and use them as fodder for neighboring districts.

Bybee also noted that he’s been getting irate emails for years from people in Sagle, an unincorporated town just south of Sandpoint.

During the 2012 redistricting process, it was lumped into the massive 7th Legislative District, which includes Idaho, Clearwater and Shoshone counties.

“The folks in Sagle have been very vocal in saying that isn’t working for them,” Bybee said.

The Commission for Reapportionment will likely hold several public hearings around the state before approving any redistricting plan. People will also have an opportunity to submit their own redistricting proposals, once the state’s redistricting website is up and running.

That won’t be until after the August reapportionment numbers come in. Once that happens, the six-member Commission for Reapportionment will be named. The four Republican and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate will each appoint one member, as will the chairmen of the two largest political parties in the state.

A majority vote is needed to adopt new district boundaries, so some level of bipartisan agreement will be necessary for the commission to complete its work.

“I think it’s going to be an interesting season of reapportionment in Idaho,” Winder said.

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