Friday, November 12, 2010

One person, one vote

Joint Corporations panel eyes redistricting

Fremont County seeks ability to manipulate voting power

By Sarah Gorin
ESPC researcher

I’ve often characterized the ESPC’s work by using the title of a regular feature in The Week news magazine, called “Boring but Important.” The drawing of lines for election districts definitely falls into this category. In fact, it may take the prize for most important action that gets the least public attention.

This week the Legislature’s Joint Interim Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee (“Corporations Committee”) met to discuss, among other things, county districting and the legislative redistricting that will follow receipt of the final 2010 census numbers.

Every ten years following the decennial census, election districts – congressional districts, legislative districts, city wards - are redrawn to recognize population changes. Each election district is supposed to contain approximately the same number of people to incorporate the principle of “one person, one vote.”

The advent of geographical information systems (GIS) has made drawing districts a relatively simple mapping exercise. However, the politics that go into it are anything but simple.

One complication is the mandate that we as a democratic society have imposed on the process via the federal Voting Rights Act. The Voting Rights Act prohibits dilution of the voting power of “communities of interest” – primarily racial or ethnic populations – by carving them up in separate districts.

We saw the Voting Rights Act applied here in Wyoming recently when several tribal plaintiffs successfully sued Fremont County to force creation of districts for county commissioner elections. The tribal plaintiffs pointed out that their votes were drowned in the current practice of electing county commissioners at-large (that is, county-wide).

The federal district court decision was scathing in its description of pervasive racism in Fremont County and ordered the drawing of five single-member districts for election of the five county commissioners. This process is now moving forward with a special primary election scheduled for Nov. 16 and a special general election for Jan.18.

Although these special elections are moving forward, the Fremont County Commission has appealed the federal district court decision to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in hopes of having it overturned.

A court-ordered apportionment always results in single-member districts, and existing state law currently provides no other options. However, a number of Fremont County officials have been advocating for changes in state laws to allow “hybrid” districting where some county commissioners could be elected from single-member districts and some elected at-large.

Put simply, it appears the officials are looking for the next best thing to the old at-large system: a new system that gives the tribes “their” district and then virtually guarantees that a Native American candidate won’t have a chance anywhere else.
The ESPC commends the members of the Corporations Committee for heeding warnings from the tribal plaintiffs’ attorney that the Fremont County Commissioners saw the proposed county districting bill as helpful to their appeal. The committee added language delaying the use of hybrid districting until January 1, 2012, but then approved the bill (the committee vote is provided below).

The committee’s bill will be offered for consideration in the 2011 Legislature. If passed, it would apply to all counties, not just Fremont County. However, since Fremont County currently is the only one with county commissioner districts, it’s difficult to view the bill in any light other than providing the county a means to once again manipulate voting power.

Legislative redistricting looms
The Corporations committee members also heard an update on preparation for legislative redistricting, which will take place in the 2012 legislative session. Final census figures will be received next spring, and depending on whether they reflect the downturn in the state’s economy that took place in 2009, significant changes in districts may be in store.

Because legislative redistricting takes place only every ten years and therefore the institutional memory is limited, the ESPC presented background information on the original legislative apportionment in 1992 and the first reapportionment in 2002.

The ESPC’s preference is to maintain the single-member district system as the one most easily understood by voters and also providing them with the highest level of accountability.

Committee vote on the hybrid county districting bill:
For: Senators Cale Case (R-S25, Lander, committee co-chair), Charles Scott (R-S30, Casper), Stan Cooper (R-S14, Kemmerer); Representatives Kermit Brown (R-H14, Laramie), Pete Illoway (R-H42, Cheyenne, committee co-chair), Tom Lubnau (R-H31, Gillette), Dave Miller (R-H55, Riverton), Tim Stubson (R-H56, Casper), Dan Zwonitzer (R-H43, Cheyenne)
Against: Senators John Hastert (D-S13, Green River), Wayne Johnson (R-S6, Cheyenne); retiring Representatives Ross Diercks (D-H2, Lusk), Mary Hales (D-H36, Casper)