Idaho’s Supreme Court will soon hear a challenge to the state’s map for 35 legislative districts. How that plan chops up Fort Hall does disservice to both the Tribes and to constitutional government.
In testimony on Oct. 6, Shoshone-Bannock leaders made a straightforward request of the Reapportionment Commission. Fort Hall Business Council Chair Devon Boyer wanted his community kept whole, better enabling it to “influence state and local elections, and elect candidates of our choice, encouraging more of our community and members to run for state and local election to represent our tribal constituents.”
His request was imminently reasonable and not dissimilar to petitions from community leaders across Idaho. Most such petitions were granted. Chairman Boyer’s request was not, even though he is backed by the clear intent of Congress, the force of existing law and rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court.
In Thornburg v. Gingles (1986), the nation’s high court said both the Constitution and Voting Rights Act compel states to take extraordinary efforts to avoid dividing “cohesive interests,” especially culturally unique communities.
The Supreme Court signaled this was especially important where a minority community finds itself out-voted repeatedly in “at-large” multi-member legislative districts. Idaho’s “one senator, two-house-member” districts are exactly the triple-disadvantage called out by the court.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) issued notice that, while redistricting is traditionally a state government function, the Constitution must be respected, and federal officials would defend the individual’s right to a meaningful voice in local government.
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division promised to “(use) every tool in our arsenal to protect the right to vote for all Americans and to ensure that officials comply with federal voting laws during the decennial redistricting cycle now underway.”
Her office issued guidance to help states comply with the Voting Rights Act when redrawing electoral maps. Those guidelines identify “watch-out” signs for gerrymandering that silences unique voices:
The division of a community of common interest that can easily be contained inside a single legislative district. Check.
A voting history that is distinctly different from the majority in the districts into which the community is proposed to be divided. Check.
A history showing the ability to periodically elect minority representatives prior to being split up but that, afterward, eliminated any such possibility. Check.
A history of discrimination and under-representation of community interests in state and federal actions. Anyone familiar with the sad history of the Fort Bridger Treaty Council can attest that this criterion has been checked repeatedly over the last hundred years.
On the map pending before Idaho’s Supreme Court no Idaho community is split down its main street, except for Fort Hall. Idaho’s re-apportioners went to great pains to keep downtown Pocatello, Idaho Falls, Twin Falls and other communities whole and integral.
But the largest Native American community in the state gets split into three different legislative districts, with north Fort Hall lumped in with Blackfoot, south Fort Hall thrown into a sprawling rural district stretching all the way down to the Utah border, and the remaining eastern thumb of the reservation stitched onto a district that goes from Felt, in Teton County, to Fish Haven on Bear Lake.
The attorney general’s guidelines ask if intent to silence minority voices is apparent. At Fort Hall’s redistricting hearing, every witness testified that splitting the community would result in reducing the collective voices of the Shoshone and Bannock people. There was not a single witness in favor of splitting the reservation into thirds.
The pending map reflects, at best, a deaf ear given to the Fort Hall community, or, at worst, a clear intent to repress the Tribes’ electoral strength. Either way, the DOJ should deliver on its promise to defend Fort Hall’s voice and undivided ability to participate in Idaho self-government.
Trent Clark of Soda Springs appointed one of the redistricting commissioners on the panel where Fort Hall was first divided. He opposed the split at that time and consistently since, as an Idaho voter and neighbor to the Shoshone-Bannock community.