The Idaho Legislature convenes Monday, Jan. 6, and early attention is likely to be given to plans for legislative redistricting following the 2020 Census.
Everyone knows Idaho has grown sharply in population in the past decade, when the current 35 districts were set, each with about 45,000 people. With an estimated population of 1.8 million in 2020, up almost 15 percent since 2010, we’re one of the fastest growing states in the nation.
But as everyone also knows, the growth in Idaho has been uneven. The metropolitan areas including Twin Falls, have grown the most, as have Coeur d’Alene, the Treasure Valley and Idaho Falls. Smaller and more remote communities, not so much.
There are a number of ideas about how the redistricting process should go, whether, for example, Idaho should expand the number of districts from 35 to 40, thereby allowing for continued close representation of Idaho’s people to their elected leaders.
But before that is even broached, the process of how we do redistricting will be an early consideration. Currently, Idaho has a six-member redistricting commission, divided equally between Democrats and Republicans. (Legislature.Idaho.gov/redistricting/). This structure dates from the early 1990s when then Democratic Gov. Cecil Andrus and Democratic legislators had the clout to get Democrats parity in this arena.
Now, Democrats know they’re vastly outnumbered in the state’s elected ranks (Republicans have more than 80 percent of legislative seats) and Democrats haven’t elected a governor since Andrus retired in 1994. So, they will fight tooth-and-nail to maintain a structure that benefits them, they think, with what little representation they retain.
That’s why you can be sure that any proposal to change the commission to better reflect the state’s politics as they are a generation later today will be fought hard by Democrats who know that adding a seventh member would effectively end their manipulation of the current process.
Ironically, the current structure hasn’t helped the Democrats much, if at all. They have fewer seats now than in the 1990s, and little prospect of huge gains, given Idaho’s dominant politics.
Since any redistricting plan needs four of the six votes, it effectively give Democrats a veto over a legislative process that’s both unrepresentative of the Legislature, as well as the state’s political profile. It’s a form of hidden gerrymandering power by the minority Democrats.
Democrat leaders will cite how the state is already “tilted” toward Republicans, so they should retain the current structure as an element of “fairness.” But, in fact, it serves no useful purpose except to protect minority seats, just as gerrymandering usually does.
A good example of this is District 26, which had four counties: Lincoln, Gooding, Camas and Blaine. The first three are generally GOP-leaning counties, but they are outweighed by lefty Wood River Blainers from Hailey to Ketchum, one of Idaho’s few Clinton/Obama pockets.
Democrats will fight hard to maintain Blaine’s perceived dominance in whatever plan is proposed. But to do so, they’ll need to stiff-arm efforts to change the commission’s structure.
Yet, this Dem-gerrymandering approach hasn’t given them any demonstrable strength outside of their isolated “islands.” Otherwise, Idaho has filled up with, (yep, ‘tis true) more Republicans moving here from more liberal places where Democrats have damaged both economies and personal freedoms.
That’s got to be frustrating to Democrats. Despite being able to rig the redistricting process for decades, they’ve gone backwards in legislative seats. Guess they keep hoping the state will somehow turn magically “blue” or at least purple, but in election after election, Idaho’s GOP continues to dominate.
Local returns bear this out. In the 2018 governor’s race for example, GOP candidate Brad Little carried 40 of Idaho’s 44 counties, many by wide margins, more than 130,000 votes statewide. In the Magic Valley, he carried all but two precincts across seven counties, again by wide margins.
Following the 2010 Census, with Democrats holding out for preferred islands of support, Dems thought they might be able to turn local races by making Twin Falls city a “donut hole” district. But GOP dominance has continued nonetheless. I held one of the GOP House seats for a decade (2008-2018) and while Dems made furious and angry challenges, they never have even come close. None of my local GOP seatmates have ever faced a significant Dem challenge.
Dem-gerrymandering hasn’t led to a breakthrough as Democrats hoped, nor is it likely to change the state’s basic voting patterns. Government representation in Idaho, as elsewhere, is closely aligned with voters’ cultural values. Given the direction of their national and state parties, (See Dems Congress’ impeachment fiasco), Democrats aren’t likely to have much resonance in Idaho.
Maybe they should look at adjustments in what they stand for. In the meantime, the redistricting battle for Dems is likely just another exercise in futility.