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Mapping Idaho

Urban Idaho steps it up a notch in time for 2010 census

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Eight years into the decade, Idaho's legislative districts are badly out of whack. District 14, the rapidly growing area that runs from Eagle into the northwestern corner of Ada County, has about as many registered voters today as it did total residents after the 2000 census. District 27, which runs from Burley north to the Pocatello city line, has lost population, giving constituents of Sen. Denton Darrington, a Declo Republican, and Reps. Fred Wood and Scott Bedke, Republicans from Burley and Oakley respectively, a stronger voice in the Legislature than their neighbors in Twin Falls.

According to the Secretary of State's Office, there are now twice as many registered voters in Star Republican Rep. Mike Moyle's District 14 than in Bedke's District 27. According to a Boise Weekly analysis of 2007 Census Bureau populatio=n estimates, Moyle's district now has an approximately 50 percent greater population than an ideal, equally apportioned 2007 district should. And Bedke could use some 12,600 more people in his district.

It's a scenario that repeats itself across the country as regions expand and contract, compounded by the turbulent job and housing markets.

Heading into the November elections, all eyes are focused on the presidential race. But in Washington, D.C., law offices and political party headquarters, there is another prize on the horizon: the chance to control who will draw the districts that will elect the next few Congresses.

"Both parties are very focused on controlling the state legislatures," said Gerald Hebert, executive director of the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C.

In most states, legislators are tasked with drawing their own district lines and congressional districts, despite the natural tendency to protect their own turf and their party's competitive advantage. A 1994 constitutional amendment in Idaho ended that practice here, giving a bipartisan commission the power to redistrict.

A nascent reform movement is trying to make redistricting less partisan and create more competitive elections across the nation. Many observers estimate that congressional districts have been engineered so that the two major political parties are fighting over only about 40 seats in any given year.

The cynical view holds that elected officials pick their voters in America rather than voters selecting their representatives.

"I've been in rooms where legislators say, 'I don't want those voters in my district,'" said Hebert, an attorney who also runs Americans for Redistricting Reform, a coalition formed earlier this year.

Ground zero for redistricting reformers this year is California, which has previously tried to take redistricting out of the hands of politicians and give it to a panel of retired judges. Californians will vote on a proposal in November that would set up a citizen commission to decide on redistricting. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the group California Common Cause support the reform while U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi and the California Democratic Party oppose it.

Earlier in the decade the focus was on Texas, after Democrats fled to Oklahoma in an attempt to delay a mid-decade Republican turf grab engineered by then-U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

With only two congressional seats, and a solid Republican majority, Idaho is not considered a battleground state on the national level. But when the Census Bureau delivers its updated figures to the state in April 2011, a different kind of battle will ensue pitting rural lawmakers against developing urban interests. Again.

Mapping it Out

Using the latest available census figures, 2007 estimates for cities and counties, and computer geographic information systems, Boise Weekly estimated populations for legislative districts.

Heading into the last round of redistricting in 2001, map makers were faced with reapportioning districts in Eastern Idaho, where growth had been stagnant, and dealing with the fact that electoral influence had shifted to the Treasure Valley and the area around Coeur d'Alene.

According to BW's analysis, that trend has continued, with huge growth in districts 14 and 21 west and south of Boise and in District 31, which encompasses Teton County. North Idaho has grown as well, but districts there are less skewed than in the rest of the state, except for District 5 south of Coeur d'Alene. The model also showed growth in Boise's District 19, which encompasses new development in East Boise. But other core Boise districts, 15, 16 and 17, appear to have remained stagnant.

District 29, east of Pocatello, has seen the most balanced growth, measuring within about 200 people of the ideal 2007 district size, calculated to be roughly 42,840 people.

When looking statewide, the next redistricting commission will need to carve a few more districts out of the southwest portion of the state, making the Treasure Valley legislative districts smaller and the Central and Eastern Idaho districts even larger.

But in Southwest Idaho, some of the Boise power base will shift west and south into growing areas of Ada and Canyon counties, which also tend to vote more conservatively.

Drawing the Lines

Idaho's first Commission on Reapportionment formed in 2001 to tackle one big, thankless job: redrawing the lines around 35 legislative districts and two congressional districts to encompass roughly equal populations.

Idaho has a surprisingly equitable method for drawing political districts. Voters approved a 1994 amendment to the state Constitution calling for a bipartisan commission to convene every 10 years to balance the legislative and congressional districts based on new census data.

Prior to that, the state Legislature was in charge of redistricting.

Idaho's commission, which is modeled after Washington's, has six members, three appointed by Republican officials and three by Democratic officials.

Idaho is one of only a dozen states that redistrict through a citizen commission.

Jonathan Winburn looked at detailed redistricting data from Idaho and other states for his recent book, The Realities of Redistricting: Following the Rules and Limiting Gerrymandering in State Legislative Redistricting. Winburn, a political scientist at the University of Mississippi, concluded that as a whole, redistricting in the United States works pretty well.

"I went into it very cynical, thinking I was going to find that redistricting is this plot to keep the voters down," Winburn said.

Instances of extreme gerrymandering—drawing districts to protect party interests, and in many cases to dilute minority votes—exist, but Winburn concluded that is the exception to the rule.

"For the most part, the rules that are in place work fairly well," he said.

In that vein, many of the reform efforts focus more on the rules than the composition of the committee drawing the lines.

Hebert's group proposes four principles: first, to follow constitutional and Voting Rights Act requirements; second, to promote competitiveness and partisan fairness; third, to respect political subdivisions and communities of interest; and finally, to encourage geographical compactness and respect for natural barriers.

Idaho's commission focused on keeping counties and cities whole in its last redistricting effort, sometimes at the expense of logic.

District 31, served by Senate President Pro Tem Robert Geddes, a Republican from Soda Springs, runs from Teton County all the way to the Utah border. Geddes said he has to either drive through five other districts to get from one end to the other, or go into Wyoming.

"We've lost the community of interest aspect," Geddes said.

In 2006, Geddes proposed some changes to the redistricting rules including a charge to make districts contiguous and amplify the communities of interest criteria. But the bill also sought to limit the influence of urban areas by prohibiting more than one commissioner from any one county. Geddes also wanted to let recently retired legislators serve on the commission and to change a provision that bars commissioners from running for office for five years after redistricting to a two-year ban.

He also wanted redistricting to proceed from smaller counties to larger counties.

The bill was pulled after opposition not just on party lines, but along the urban-rural divide, according to Boise Democratic Sen. Elliott Werk.

"It very much came off as rural legislators having more control and being able to slice up districts into those pie slices," Werk said.

Geddes said he has continued to discuss changes to the redistricting rules and would still like to implement a few. He has not contemplated eliminating the constitutional amendment that formed the commission, Geddes said, though he preferred when lawmakers drew their own boundaries.

One of the techniques rural lawmakers use to retain power is to cut rural districts into urban areas, diluting the urban vote. District 14 looks a bit like that now, with Moyle, who lives in rural Ada County, representing much of the City of Eagle.

"There should be a district that really represents the City of Eagle," Werk said.

But depending how the lines are drawn, a split District 14 may or may not result in a more urban voice.

"Redistricting never brings about the immediate kind of change that people either fear or hope for," said Boise State political scientist Gary Moncrief. "You might wind up with two Mike Moyles."

Looking Ahead

Hallway conversation in the Capitol Annex earlier this year—some three years before redistricting is to occur—included the calculation that certain bills, particularly transit bills, may have a better chance in the 2012 Idaho Legislature.

But there are also signs that many of Idaho's new urban residents continue to vote with rural interests, as the voting pattern in Meridian has shown.

Conversely, there are signs—like the hotly contested local races that Eagle has seen recently—that a more tightly drawn voting district in Eagle could quickly lose its ties to rural Ada County and take on issues like air quality and land use planning and the valley's transportation woes. The Nov. 4 election will lend more or less credence to the theory that because someone lives in a growing area, he or she is concerned about the effects of growth.

In other words, the theory that Moyle would be able to clone himself through redistricting.

"Moyle is done," said House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet, a Ketchum Democrat. "Definitely, the rural folks in the Legislature are concerned about what their districts might look like in the next redistricting."

In the years following the 2001 redistricting, Democrats were able to take over Republican seats in western Boise districts. Democrats were widely seen as coming out on top in Idaho's last round of redistricting, while Republicans fought among themselves.

"There was quite a struggle between the center of the Republican party and a more extremist right wing that had a different view of how the redistricting should work out," said Tom Stuart, who served as a redistricting commissioner in 2001.

Republican Commissioner Dean Haagenson, who was at the center of that struggle, agreed.

"There were people who wanted us to be very partisan and that's really counter to what the commission's supposed to be," the North Idaho developer said. "I thought my job on there was for the people first and the party a far second, and I wasn't going to step down."

Haagenson, along with another Republican appointee, ended up voting with the three Democratic members on a final plan, which is part of the genius of Idaho's commission. He recalls Jim Risch, who was running for lieutenant governor at the time redistricting came to a close, saying that any way you cut up a cherry pie, you get cherries.

But Stuart said the balanced nature of the commission does make for more balanced districts, despite all the red.

"Every action that's taken by the commission requires bipartisan support," Stuart said. "I think that's really a good deal for voters. That means that tyranny of either party cannot occur."

Stuart thinks Republican discontent in 2001 and 2002 was less about how the lines were drawn and more about the changes that growth wrought on the state in the prior decade.

By now, growth in Idaho is an old story, but one that is still being played out.

Haagenson had been warned from the outset by then-GOP chairman Trent Clark that serving on the commission would not be an easy job.

"How would you like to take a job that's going to take a lot of your time and everybody's going to be mad at you when it's over?" Haagenson recalls Clark asking.

Haagenson said that even though he served on the commission, he does not think it is the best way to handle redistricting.

Haagenson served in the Idaho Legislature throughout the 1980s and thinks that legislators are better equipped to draw district boundaries than a committee. Echoing Geddes' position, Haagenson said that lawmakers are more intimately familiar with their communities and better able to outline appropriate communities of interest.

"The Legislature will come up with a plan that minimizes the number of people who go head to head with each other," Haagenson said. "They're the ones who know the communities."

Jaquet disagrees.

"I think that people would feel tempted to draw the lines around where their house was," she said.

Geddes said that it was the six commissioners—or five of them at least—that put him in the new District 31 where he had to defeat Republican colleague Stan Hawkins. He could have been pitted against former Democratic legislator Bert Marley just as easily. And, Geddes theorized, in the coming redistricting, Sens. Darrington and Dean Cameron, a Rupert Republican, could easily be drawn into the same district, or either of them could be linked to Blaine County and face Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett, a Democrat from Ketchum.

Power Hold

Geddes and Haagenson may have a point that the Legislature could do a better job drawing the districts. Winburn found that it is the rules of redistricting in a state that matter more than the body that decides on the map.

With redistricting commissions, "the politics just get pushed further down in the process," he said.

In most cases, that means the political battles are fought through the courts. The 2001 commission's first two plans went to the Idaho Supreme Court and were overturned before a third and final plan succeeded. Even then, Eastern Idaho lawmakers sued in 2005 seeking another new map.

In the Southern and Eastern regions of the United States, challenges to redistricting have frequently revolved around the disenfranchisement of minority communities. A case that goes to the U.S. Supreme Court this month stems from a nearly decade-old North Carolina plan that split a once African American majority district in two.

In Idaho, American Indian tribes and the Hispanic community in Canyon County made a case for carving out minority districts, but were not successful and did not have large enough constituencies to challenge the map.

Most of the debate in Idaho is over partisan gerrymandering, a tactic that the Supreme Court agrees is illegal, but has not yet decided how to prevent.

Winburn pointed out that even if Democrats were handed control of redistricting in Idaho, they could probably not carve out enough partisan districts to take over the Legislature.

"I don't think the Republican majority is really going to go away," he said.

Idaho's congressional district boundary is a similar story. The line has moved steadily westward through the decades, and Boise may end up fully in the Second District after 2011, Moncrief suggested.

But that will not change the political equation; even if a Democrat were to win in the First Congressional District this year, Republicans will maintain their advantage in both districts.

Growth in Idaho has not been steep enough to warrant a third congressional seat this time around, but it could happen in 2020 if growth continues. A district could be drawn in Ada and Canyon counties to bring Idaho's urban representation up to the federal level as well.

Not many people are talking about redistricting on the street yet, but the U.S. Census Bureau and the states are beginning to make preparations and coordinate voting precinct maps.

"Obviously, politicians are keenly aware of it, but it's not something that gets a lot of play until the 2010 election," Moncrief said. "That determines the makeup of the Legislature before the census."

In some states, where state senators serve four-year terms, that election is now. But in Idaho, it will be a long time before the plotting begins. Redistricting is always political and never makes everyone happy, Moncrief said.

"There's always going to be somebody that feels like they got screwed."

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