BOISE — Explosive population growth since 2000 in the sprawling farmland-turned-suburbia west of Idaho’s capital city means Republican House Majority Leader Mike Moyle now represents more than 80,000 people — twice as many as he should, according to rules used to draw the political boundaries a decade ago.
By contrast, in north central Idaho’s District 8, lawmakers there speak for just 36,000 people after Clearwater, Idaho and Lewis counties lost residents.
With the latest U.S. Census figures arriving in March, Idaho’s two biggest political parties are gearing up for the bruising process of rebalancing Idaho’s legislative districts so one person actually will mean one vote, regardless of whether they live in Grangeville or Star.
Redistricting, as it’s called, isn’t pretty, and is often plagued by lawsuits and accusations of manipulation.
“I could end up with another county,” Moyle, the House’s No. 2 leader, said of the potential consequences of redistricting for the 2012 election.
Idaho has 35 legislative districts, stretching from Canada to the Wyoming and Utah borders. Each district has two representatives and a senator.
Over the last decade, the state has grown to nearly 1.6 million people from 1.3 million, with the most dramatic increases in the suburbs of Boise, Nampa and Coeur d’Alene, as well as Idaho Falls and Rexburg. Each new district will jump to around 45,500 people, from 37,000 in 2002.
Canyon stands to gain
As a result, generally conservative suburban areas like Moyle’s district, Meridian and Canyon County, stand to gain representatives, while the power of Idaho’s agricultural hinterlands at the Capitol will continue to ebb.
“We’ll need to have 4,000 or 5,000 additional people in my district,” conceded House Assistant Minority Leader Scott Bedke, a rancher whose district covers four rural counties north of the Utah line. “In my part of the state, you have to go a long way to gather up 5,000 people.”
By June 1, House and Senate Republican and Democratic leaders, as well as the parties’ respective chairmen, will choose three Democrats and three Republicans for volunteer posts on the redistricting commission.
Over the following 90 days, the commission people will hold public hearings across Idaho, before formulating a redistricting plan.
How redistricting works
Here are the basic rules: The largest and smallest districts’ populations can’t vary by more than 10 percent; where possible, commissioners shouldn’t split up counties; and they should combine “communities of interest,” to avoid pairing groups with little in common — rural Elmore County and Sun Valley, for example.
In the last redistricting, multiple lawsuits ended up in the Idaho Supreme Court, delaying the final plan until March 2002 — just before that year’s election filing deadline.
Idaho’s unusual shape, vast distances and population centers separated by miles of sagebrush or mountains don’t help.
“The reality is, somebody always thinks they’ve been done wrong in redistricting,” said Gary Moncrief, a political science professor at Boise State University. “I tell my students, it’s like painting the kitchen, and you’re going to wind up in the corner. In Idaho, you always wind up in a corner.”
The provincial politics involved in the process are often accompanied by animosity.
“The reapportionment process is the purest form of political blood sport,” said Tom Stuart, a Democratic commissioner from Boise in 2001.
2002 plan drew critics
The 2002 plan left southeastern Idaho GOP lawmakers furious, after incumbents wound up facing each other in a new “super district” that included Bear Lake, Bonneville, Caribou, Franklin and Teton counties. Some didn’t run again. Rep. Tom Loertscher lost his 2002 GOP primary to Rep. Larry Bradford, another sitting lawmaker.
Loertscher, who rejoined the Legislature in 2004, remains convinced that a backroom deal gave northern Idaho more political clout, leaving him fighting for his political life in an unwieldy district where travel requires detouring through Wyoming.
Dean Haagenson, a Republican redistricting commissioner from Coeur d’Alene in 2001, recalls how some GOP officials called for his resignation. They thought he was working with Democratic commissioners in order to receive their help for his region, though Haagenson said nothing of the kind happened.
“I told those threatening me, ‘I’m a Republican, but my first responsibility is to the citizens,’” Haagenson said. “’And by the way, I don’t respond very well to threats.’”
Regrets about past plan
Today, Haagenson said he regrets the plan’s effect on southeastern Idaho, however unintentional. And he and Loertscher both would prefer that Idaho return to the system it had before 1994 when redistricting was handled by the Legislature. Voters passed a constitutional amendment to take it out of the Legislature’s hands.
“When it was done by the Legislature, it was a full representation of the state,” Loertscher said. “We know the way our districts fit together.”
But Secretary of State Ben Ysursa remembers the old process was never easy, either, with some lawmakers mainly busy protecting incumbencies.
“The commission certainly has its flaws, but to me, it’s better than the Legislature doing it,” Ysursa said.
This time, the 2011 commission will benefit from the 2001 and 2002 Supreme Court rulings.
And a 2009 law seeks to avoid cumbersome districts like Loertscher’s by requiring they be at least connected by paved highways. Idaho also has new software, called Maptitude, so any interested residents can draw districts on their home computer, to help gird themselves for the summer’s public hearings.