Earlier this year, Republican lawmakers tried – and failed – to change Idaho’s Constitution to give their party the upper hand when it comes to the looming redistricting process. That amendment seems likely to come back next year.
The GOP is also embracing a plan that would simply add more lawmakers to the state legislature – potentially cementing their near total control of the House and Senate.
Right now, Idaho is carved into 35 legislative districts, which is as much as the state constitution allows. Some of these span parts of more densely populated cities like Boise, while others stretch across thousands of square miles of vast forests and seemingly endless seas of sagebrush.
But Republicans, like House Speaker Scott Bedke (R-Oakley), say 35 districts might not be enough.
“I think we’re better served in a large, diverse state like we have that has the distinct regions, the distinct customs and cultures and keeping more representation rather than less,” Bedke said in a video published by a conservative blog in February.
He says he worries the next redistricting commission that’ll form in 2021 will actually cut the number of districts down to the constitutional minimum of 30.
But adding new districts could give Republicans an even bigger share of the state legislature than the 80% they already control. Despite that, Bedke says he’s not worried about blowback.
“I don’t anticipate a big conflict there. I think that that’s going to be a bipartisan idea.”
Bedke has strong backing from his party on this issue. Dale Ewersen is the Region 5 chairman for the Idaho Republican Party. Ewersen also chairs the GOP’s redistricting committee and thinks some of these districts are just too big.
“Right now, there are at least two, maybe three districts where legislators have to travel several hours, if not a couple days to get from one end of the district to the other,” Ewersen said.
District 7, for example, stretches from the rafting mecca of Riggins, over mountains, prairies and farmland all the way to Lake Pend Oreille – nearly 300 miles north.
“It’s more difficult to know your constituents when it’s that great of distance to travel, no doubt about it. So, [is Idaho] underrepresented? It’s getting close in places, yes,” Ewersen said.
In the same video published to the conservative blog in February, Bedke mentioned possibly creating three new districts. That would add nine new lawmakers at a cost of nearly $200,000 in taxpayer money for their salaries and constituent services allowances, but that figure doesn't factor in any housing, per diem or travel expenses they might incur.
New legislators would also need physical office space at the Capitol that's been in short supply on the House side.
Adding new districts would need two-thirds of state lawmakers to sign off on the constitutional amendment. Then, more than half of voters would have to approve it at the ballot box.
Another proposal to change who draws the district maps would need to jump through the same hoops.
Rep. Steven Harris (R-Meridian) sponsored a failed measure that would’ve added a seventh member to the redistricting commission earlier this year. Right now, six members are appointed by leaders of Idaho's two biggest political parties, which have traditionally been Republicans and Democrats.
Harris says the amendment is an attempt to avoid similar legal battles the state faced the past two cycles.
“We want to keep this out of the courts," Harris said. "We want to avoid this perpetual deadlock. There are obviously some partisan ways of doing this. We want to avoid that if we can."
But it would’ve been partisan. That new commission member would’ve been appointed by statewide elected officials, who have all been Republicans since 2006.
State lawmakers used to draw the maps and they faced bitter court challenges, too, before 1994. That’s when 64% of voters enshrined the current system in the state constitution.
The 1980 redistricting battle even broke out into a fistfight between two legislators. The Spokesman Review reported Sen. Vernon Brassey, (R-Boise), suffered a bloody nose in a scuffle with Sen. J. Wilson Steen, (R-Glenns Ferry).
Now, the plan to add a seventh commission member looks likely to come back next year and District 15 in West Boise is one the GOP has its eyes on.
“Politically, I call it Omaha Beach because everything to the east of it was represented only by Democrats until this year and everything to the west of it in Ada County was represented only by Republicans,” said Rep. Steve Berch (D-Boise).
Berch ran four times in the district before winning last year. His party flipped both House seats and narrowly lost the Senate race there.
Berch says packing the redistricting commission is clearly a partisan move.
“They want to protect and preserve their personal political power – not because it’s better for the state, not because it solves some egregious problem that the state has,” he said.
“It’s strictly and solely for their personal, political benefit.”
These types of moves aren’t just popping up in Idaho. A ruling this summer from the U.S. Supreme Court means federal courts can no longer rule on partisan gerrymandering.
“I think you’re seeing a lot of reevaluation of existing state structures that serve to constrain that partisanship and I think that’s a shame,” said Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School who tracks redistricting.
Now, it’s up to individual states to police redistricting and Idaho is one of just six that has an independent panel.
“I think Idaho has been pretty well served by a commission with some modicum of independence from the people who are actually running for office and I’m not surprised that legislators would be interested in taking back that power,” Levitt said.
The Democratic minority can’t block either of these proposals at the statehouse.
If they pass, it’d be up to Idaho voters to decide if they’re tired of the nonpartisan system they approved 25 years ago.
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