If past is prologue, the work of the citizen commission charged with realigning Idaho’s 35 legislative districts to a decade’s worth of population growth and shifting will come down to lines — county lines, that is.
You’d think the paramount role of this commission is to respect the one-person, one-vote doctrine. At the moment, some districts have too many people — so the individual voters are disenfranchised. And others have too few, which means they’ll have to be merged with other jurisdictions. Throw in a state with a narrow northern panhandle, and it quickly gets complicated.
But what usually gets the redistricting panel in legal trouble is a constitutional ban on dividing Idaho’s 44 counties more than absolutely necessary.
A decade ago, a citizen commission came up with a plan that respected the one-person, one-vote doctrine while seeking to make those districts responsive to the communities they represent.
The panel proposed splitting counties about a dozen times.
With only then-Justice Jim Jones dissenting, the Idaho Supreme Court said that was too many.
To get the court’s approval, the commission pared its plan down to seven county splits.
That’s how you end up with the 7th District, where large, sparsely populated counties are merged into an area that runs from the Silver Valley to the Adams County line.
It’s why politically competitive communities such as Moscow and Lewiston have been attached to solidly Republican towns such as St. Maries and Craigmont, respectively.
And it’s why voters in Iona, a small community in a corner of Bonneville County, find themselves attached to a district that runs all the way to Preston, Montpelier and Malad.
What makes these county lines so sacred that the voters’ voice gets drowned out?
County boundaries are not written into stone.
Ever hear of Alturas County?
From territorial days in the 1860s until after statehood was declared in 1890, that county covered more ground in southern Idaho than the states of Maryland, New Jersey and Delaware combined.
Over time, Alturas was carved up to create Elmore and Logan counties. Eventually Alturas and Logan counties disappeared. In their place came Blaine County and Lincoln County to the south.
Why can’t it t happen again?
Idaho’s constitution gives voters a great deal of leeway. It takes a simple majority to divide a county; a two-thirds majority in each jurisdiction to consolidate.
About the only thing the state constitution bans is leaving behind a county so small and so impoverished that it could not support itself.
For the sake of argument, say you wanted to update Idaho’s county map to reflect 100 years of change from a rural, agricultural state to one where the bulk of its people live in urban centers.
Would you need 44 counties? How about 20?
Would you keep remote Clark County, which claims more sheep than people?
Why wouldn’t you consider dividing massive Idaho County at White Bird Hill?
Doesn’t southern Latah County have more in common with northern Nez Perce County?
Boise is so swollen with people it could be its own county. People in that community wouldn’t mind divorcing themselves from a jurisdiction that elects a pair of knuckleheads like Rod Beck and Ryan Davidson to the Ada County Commission.
Easier said than done?
Reconciling different tax rates, assessments, debts and infrastructure between counties is a migraine in the making.
State law gives the Legislature the ability to weigh in, which it no doubt would.
So file this under the category of whimsey.
Idaho will once again graft a 21st century legislative system onto a late 19th century county map.
Just the same, don’t we have this backwards? — M.T.