BOISE — Idaho’s two largest cities could soon be required to elect their city council by district, instead of at-large.
On Thursday, the House of Representatives passed HB 413 with a 53-16 vote, to require cities over 100,000 people to divide their city into districts for city council elections. Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, said he put forward the legislation in order to increase representation in big, diverse cities to ensure voices from all corners of these localities are represented.
“Currently in those cities over 100,000 people to deal with your constituents is nearly impossible,” he said. “Can you imagine trying to serve a community of 240,000?”
Opponents of the bill, mostly Democrats from the city of Boise, argued the bill would selectively remove local control from a narrow subset of the state, create the possibility for gerrymandering and decrease competition for seats.
House Majority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, called the legislation a “punitive” measure against the city of Boise for currently having a Democratic city council with the majority of sitting members living in the North End.
“These cities currently have the ability to do this districting and are choosing not to, and the Legislature is coming in to tell them how to run their business,” Rubel said. “I think it is a heavy hand of government and telling those cities how they have to proceed when they don’t want to proceed in this manner.”
Boise City Council currently elects its members on a staggered schedule, meaning half the seats are up at a time. Rubel argued the bill would not boost turnout because it would disenfranchise half the city every election when their district’s seat was not up.
Boise’s population is nearly 230,000 people, based on 2018 Census Bureau estimates. Meridian’s population surpassed 100,000 in recent years, and Nampa’s is nearing that threshold.
The issue of city council districts came up frequently during the 2019 Boise municipal election. Karen Danley, an unsuccessful candidate for Seat 1 from Northwest Boise, made the need for geographic diversity on the council and districts one of her main campaign issues.
Although he lives in Meridian, Rep. Steven Harris talked about the lack of Boise City Council candidates coming to campaign in his area because it is so far from downtown.
“Who even comes to campaign there?” he said. “Nobody does. If we were in districts then we have someone close by who cares about what I care about. They go downtown and they talk about those kinds of things, but they’re not overwhelmed by public transportation, libraries, stadiums and tall buildings.”
Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, applauded the bill, and said she hoped it would go further to include smaller cities. She also suggested the idea of legislation that would allow some of the council seats to be elected by district and others to be at-large, which would take care of some of the issues Rubel is concerned about but still allow for more diverse voices.
“People need to be represented,” Ehardt said. “People need to hear all voices, especially when it’s the local government.”