BOISE — Idaho’s bipartisan redistricting commission was unable to propose any new political maps on Wednesday, missing an unofficial, self-imposed goal.
That doesn’t mean commissioners are in trouble or the process is flawed or doomed to failure.
By law, commissioners still have until Nov. 30 to submit their redistricting plan and maps to the state. Commissioners hope to finish before the deadline and still very well may.
But now the redistricting commission is heading into a planned break of nearly two weeks. The commission will reach the halfway point of its 90-day assignment on Friday.
That means when commissioners reconvene next on Oct. 27 they will have just more than 30 days to refine and improve upon the three “rough draft” maps proposals they unveiled Sept. 10.
“When we come back there is still going to be a lot of yeoman’s work that needs to still be done (mapping) in the Treasure Valley,” commission co-chairman Bart Davis said during Wednesday’s meeting at the Idaho Capitol.
Redistricting takes place every 10 years and is the process of using new U.S. Census Bureau data to redraw the state’s two congressional districts and 35 legislative districts. The process is mandated by the U.S. Constitution and the Idaho Constitution to satisfy the principle of “one person, one vote.”
Davis announced the Oct. 13 goal on Sept. 2, during the commission’s second-ever meeting. Knowing a break was planned because of trips he and another commissioner agreed to before they were appointed, Davis said he wanted to have one of the two maps finished, if not voted on, by Oct. 13.
Davis told the Idaho Capital Sun on Wednesday he has since learned how complex the redistricting process is, comparing it to a complicated math problem.
Davis said the process is uncertain. As a longtime former Idaho Senate majority leader, Davis compared the situation with the redistricting commission to the unpredictable and sometimes chaotic final weeks of an Idaho legislative session.
“As you know at the end of every legislative session, with a week or two to go, you don’t know how it’s going to all turn out,” Davis said in the interview. “And I‘d say that’s a pretty fair comparison right now. I don’t know how it is going to turn out. I just know I have got good partners in the process.”
“I’ve never done this before, and I promise I will never do it again,” Davis added. “I don’t think you really understand until you go through it yourself. I still am learning through this process and I may have been a little more naive at the front end than I am right now and I may still be more naive than I will be in another few weeks.”
Why is Idaho redrawing political boundaries now?
Idaho was the second-fastest growing state in the country over the past 10 years, according to the 2020 census. But that growth was uneven and divided, which is why the old maps need to be thrown out and redrawn.
Even though redistricting is a time-consuming process that often feels intimidating, it will have far reaching effects on Idaho politics and elections over the next decade. The new maps will determine which districts Idahoans live in and, therefore, who they are able to vote for starting in 2022 and who will represent them in the Legislature and in Congress.
It is likely many Idahoans will live in a new legislative district and have different legislative candidates to vote for starting in 2022, even if voters and candidates themselves never move to a new home. It is also possible some one-time legislative allies previously representing neighboring districts will be drawn into the same new district and have to quickly decide whether to run against each other or not seek re-election come spring.
Congressional districts will also change. One proposed congressional map splits Ada County between the two congressional districts. The other proposed congressional map moves all of Ada County and the Treasure Valley into the first congressional district.
For the past 10 years, Ada County has been split between the two congressional districts.
Why didn’t Idaho redistricting commissioners create a new map this week?
Redistricting commissioners face several challenges. Some of the challenges and one of the commission’s deliberate strategies explain why it did not produce a new map this week.
On the strategy side, commissioners deliberately prioritized visiting each region of the state and engaging in public meetings to allow Idahoans and local elected officials to tell commissioners what is important to them when it comes to political representation.
Commissions conducted public hearings in 16 Idaho cities and towns over the past month.
Redistricting commissioner Dan Schmidt participates in Maptitude software training on Sept 2. (Photo by Jim Max/For the Idaho Capital Sun.)
“I’m happy with the work we’ve done. I think we’ve listened pretty hard,” commission co-chairman Dan Schmidt said in an interview Wednesday. I’ve driven around this state before but I appreciate being reminded how big this state is. To me they (the public hearings) were very helpful.”
“We’ve got to kind of put it together, and that’s our job,” Schmidt added.
Commissioners finished up their public hearings on Tuesday night with a remote, virtual hearing for anyone who could not attend a hearing in person.
“We’ve run pretty hard, we’ve seen a lot of Idaho, we put on a lot of miles,” Davis told commissioners Wednesday. “One thing we did say to each other as a commission is that it seemed to us to be disingenuous to the public to say, ‘We want your input, and, by the way, we’ve already started redrawing the maps in these areas.’”
Commissioners completed the public hearings before their break, so that represents a goal accomplished.
There are other challenges too.
Commissioners broke into three regional subcommittees, with a pair of commissioners assigned each to northern Idaho, eastern Idaho and southwestern Idaho. As commissioners worked down from northern Idaho and west from eastern Idaho, they found they unwittingly pushed some of the “problems” with redistricting into the Treasure Valley where the regional plans all converge in the state’s population center. Potential problems include things like creating unequal population distributions between districts or not finding a “home” for a county because its population is either too large or too small to support its own standalone district.
“We’ve got different areas that are looking pretty good, but we’ve still got that middle part that needs some more work,” commissioner Eric Redman said Thursday.
George Moses, who served on a previous redistricting commission 10 years ago, has urged commissioners to focus on splitting up as few of Idaho’s 44 counties as possible. That’s another challenge for the commission: breaking up 44 counties into 35 legislative districts of as close to equal population as possible while splitting as few counties as possible.
So far, the commission’s proposed legislative map splits eight counties. However, some members of the public submitted maps that split seven counties.
“It’s obvious to me in looking at your work that you have been focused strongly on keeping the size difference between districts as small as possible,” Moses wrote to this year’s redistricting commission. “And while that is important, it should not obscure the need for sensible decision making. The statute governing redistricting is quite clear on the subject of keeping counties intact,” Moses added. “What it amounts to is, if it is not necessary to split a county, it is necessary not to split a county.”
Some of the redistricting commission subcommittees are likely to meet on their own between now and Oct. 27. In the meantime, Idahoans can review maps proposed by the commission and the public on the redistricting commission website. Idahoans can also use a free version of the Maptitude software to design and submit their own maps for consideration. Once a map is submitted, it becomes a public record, along with the identity of the map’s author.