The 2020 census is around the corner and, like peanut butter and jelly, the census is coupled with the redrawing of Idaho’s legislative districts. Currently, Idaho has 35 legislative districts, each represented by a single state senator and two state representatives. Each is responsible to be an advocate for their entire district.
Idaho House Speaker Scott Bedke is proposing a serious change. He believes that 35 districts are not enough. The reason is that Idaho’s population growth in the last decade has been concentrated in just a few big urban counties, specifically Ada, Canyon, Twin Falls, Bonneville and Kootenai. As a consequence, when lines are redrawn the pressure will be to shift more of the current districts into those big counties, reducing the number in more rural areas.
Currently, Idaho’s state constitution limits Idaho’s legislative districts to no more than 35 and no fewer than 30. Bedke is suggesting raising the maximum to 38 districts to protect rural representation.
In a video posted on IdahoConservatives.com, Bedke explained his rationale: “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.”
Right now some Idaho legislative districts can only be described as . . . odd. District 8 crosses the middle of the state stretching from Gem County north of Boise to Lemhi County on the Montana border. Smack in the middle of the district are the Sawtooths and the other central Idaho mountain ranges. District 32 goes from the Utah border to the Driggs area. District 7 in North Idaho spans from the Sandpoint area to Riggins and extends roughly 200 miles. These districts smash together communities that are unrelated with differing interests. They are difficult to travel and unfair to those represented and to those doing the representing.
Bedke’s add-to-the-number-of-legislative-districts proposal is designed to avoid adding even more massive legislative districts in rural regions after 2020.
The reason for these unusual districts is simple math. The U.S. Constitution and the U.S. Supreme Court require legislative districts to have equal population. Idaho’s sparsely populated rural areas require cobbling together large geographic areas to get equal population.
There is another alternative to adding legislative districts that could improve representation. And, it could be done in concert with Bedke’s approach. Idaho’s population last year was estimated at 1.754 million. Dividing by 35 legislative districts means that each district requires 50,114 people to be compliant.
What if instead each Idaho state representative was elected from half of a current legislative district not the whole? Let’s call that a sub district. A state senator could still be chosen from the entire district. The advantages of dividing House districts are considerable. Each House member would have a district half the size of current districts, or about 25,000 people. That number would be far easier to reach during a campaign and a single representative could focus on a smaller audience in terms of listening to the voices of their constituents. They could be more responsive and more focused on particular local issues.
It would also reduce the problem of overly large districts. For instance, the current District 8 could consist of two sub districts for House members. One would be predominately north of Boise while the companion sub district would center on Challis, Salmon and surrounding communities on the other side of the mountains. In a more urban area, each sub district might cover just parts of a city, hopefully with some commonality.
This solution would not resolve the problem of overly large districts for some state senators. But having a more in-tune and responsive House could be beneficial enough to justify the change.
Creating sub districts would require an amendment to the Idaho Constitution. That means approval by two-thirds of both the Idaho Senate and House and a majority of Idaho voters in the general election. It is an idea worthy of some consideration.