If the Idaho legislature’s Redistricting Commission acts on testimony it received this week, three of Bannock County’s lawmakers will face a huge challenge to win reelection next year. That is, by the way, a big “if.”
The homes of Reps. Randy Armstrong, R-Inkom, and Kevin Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, and Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-Arimo, are all in an area that Southeast Idaho officials want to see added to an existing legislative district. By law, the commission is prohibited from considering where lawmakers live when drawing district boundaries.
The purpose of redistricting is to ensure every voter has equal representation. County commissioners, clerks and current and one former state legislator from the southeast corner of Idaho all testified to the redistricting commissioners that they want to be in a district that includes Caribou, Bear Lake, Franklin and Oneida counties plus the south end of Bannock County.
The four counties in the southeast corner of the state are currently in legislative district 32. The district also includes eastern Bonneville County and all of Teton County.
Testimony argued that Teton County didn’t belong in the district. Rep. Marc Gibbs, R-Grace, told the commission they should leave Teton County out of what’s now District 32. “They just don’t get full representation now,” said Gibbs.
He’s right. Teton County is too far away from the rest of the district it’s in. Look at a map and you’ll see that.
Redistricting is done every 10 years, when population data comes available from the census. The last effort, in 2011, didn’t work well.
By the Idaho Constitution a redistricting commission has 90 days to do its work. In 2011, the commission didn’t meet that deadline.
Three weeks later a new set of commissioners was appointed and given about 75 days to finish their work. They drew their maps by early December, but in January the Idaho Supreme Court ruled the map unconstitutional.
The commission reconvened for two days, then agreed on a new map. It wasn’t perfect. It split Twin Falls County into three districts, for example.
Commission chairman Ron Beitelspacher said he was unhappy with the size of three of the districts, but noted there was little they could do due to the restrictions from the Idaho Supreme Court and the odd shape of the state. Idaho has lived with the districts for almost a decade.
The 2021 commission needs to finish their work by Nov. 30. In that time, they need to redraw the legislative district map and also one for Idaho’s two congressional districts.
By law, districts must be contiguous and ordinarily a county shouldn’t be divided unless it has a population greater than that of a single district. As of the 2020 census Bannock, Bonneville, Ada, Canyon and Kootenai counties are in that category.
The problem facing the commission is the continued rapid population gains in the Boise Valley and around Coeur d’Alene and Idaho Falls and slower growth elsewhere in the state. Districts were about 45,000 people in 2011. Now they’re over 52,500.
Testimony the commission heard in Fort Hall and Pocatello last Wednesday puts into stark relief how difficult it is to draw fair and reasonable legislative districts under Idaho law. A district that stretches from Malad to Tetonia is too large for a legislator to represent effectively.
However, if Teton County is removed, the district will either need to take in an urban area or sprawl out elsewhere to meet the population target. The urban areas available are either Idaho Falls or around Pocatello, including precincts in Chubbuck. Neither of those constitutes the sort of “community of interest” that should be included in an ideal legislative district.
This is just in one corner of Idaho. The commission has all the state to deal with. They deserve our sympathy, and our gratitude, for tackling such a difficult job.
If the District 32 boundary stays the same and adds southern Bannock County then Armstrong, Andrus and Guthrie could all face incumbents of their own party in the primary election next spring . Those incumbents, by the way, are known by more than 80 percent of the voters in that enlarged district. Winning such a primary would be difficult for the Bannock County lawmakers.
Dave Finkelnburg is a long-time Idahoan, a former newspaper journalist, and is currently semi-retired from an engineering career.