Saturday, July 16, 2011

Redistricting effort stirs local worries

'One person, one vote' standard must drive redistricting of Wyo Legislature

Local plans reflect different definitions of 'community of interest' concept

If "Not in My Back Yard” is the battle-cry of people who occasionally venture into the realm of public land planning, then “Leave Us Alone” or “Keep Our County Whole” are the battle cries heard most often when people consider redistricting the Wyoming Legislature.

Elected officials in Natrona and Albany counties already have submitted plans that would enable them to place all or nearly all their residents in state Senate and House districts lying wholly within their county lines.

Legislators and other public officials in the Big Horn Basin took the idea a step further July 12, when they told the Legislature’s Joint Interim Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee that they can keep their “unique” basin whole – so long as the committee follows their draft plan that would pick off nearly 800 Fremont County residents, who live in the Shoshoni and Lysite voting districts (also known as precincts).

The process of reconfiguring the boundaries of legislative districts is known as “reapportionment” or “redistricting.” The Legislature must redraw legislative district lines in the first budget session following completion of the decennial U.S. Census. Under the constitutional principle of “one person, one vote,” those districts must be nearly equal in population to ensure that each voter wields roughly equal power in legislative elections.

Population growth in some areas of the state and decline in others since the 2000 Census mean legislative district boundaries must change to reflect those shifts. Determining exactly how to change the lines is a political process that in the U.S. traditionally has been used by the party in control of the legislature to solidify the ability of its members to get elected both to Congress and the state Legislature.

But in Wyoming, there is only one Congressional district for the entire state, so there’s no opportunity to gerrymander districts. And in the Legislature, the Republican Party’s huge majorities in both the state House and Senate mean shifting district lines largely will affect GOP members.

The Interim Corporations committee adopted seven principles to guide its redistricting efforts. The key principle, known as the “range of deviation,” aims to abide by the principle of “one person, one vote” by keeping the difference in population of the highest population district in the state and the lowest population district within 10 percent. Other principles include following county boundaries as much as possible, keeping the majority of a county’s population in one district, recognition of significant geographic features, compactness, and combining “communities of interest.”

Many people have seized on the term “community of interest” to justify placing lines here rather than there. Since it started its series of 10 public meetings around the state to hear local concerns and plans for redistricting, the committee has been presented numerous interpretations of the concept.

Some who testified to the committee see “communities of interest” in economic terms. Others see it as rural versus urban, or as achieving balance between intra- and inter-party political interests. Although some local residents may feel strongly about these criteria, none of them are likely to stand up in a court case.

County clerks will draft a plan

When the committee met in Lander on July 13, Fremont County Clerk Julie Freese told the committee that the state’s county clerks will meet in August to draft their own proposal. The clerks hope to minimize the splitting of voting precincts. Freese said those splits can lead to confusion at the polls. A voter could be given a ballot that lists elections the voter cannot legally vote in.

With more splitting of precincts, she said, it becomes more likely a voter will get the wrong ballot “and that is called fraud.”

Challenge the deviation standard?

Big Horn Basin legislators also argued that the committee should consider exempting the Basin from the 10 percent deviation standard because they know more people will move there soon. They said an expected boom in tertiary oil production based upon CO2 injection and development of a new irrigation project will swell the Basin’s population, and that will take care of any problems with districts with too-few residents.

With its endorsement of a 90-member Legislature with 30 seats in the Senate, the committee forced some basic arithmetic: divide the 2010 Census population of Wyoming by 30 to find the ideal population for a Senate district: 18,788 people. With 60 seats in the House, the ideal population for a House district is 9,394. No district can exceed those numbers or fall below them by more than 5 percent. The most populous Senate district cannot have more than 19,727 people residing in it. The least populous House district cannot include fewer than 8,924 people.

The ESPC supports the deviation standard and opposes any exceptions. We will work to ensure that all Wyoming citizens have equal representation.

Members of the committee warned that a lawsuit will assuredly be filed if the standard, established through substantial court precedent, is ignored. The committee voted in April to support the deviation standard. Sen. Cale Case, one of the co-chairmen of the joint committee, warned against exceptions when the committee met in Powell. If the committee granted an exception to the deviation standard in the Big Horn Basin, people in other areas of Wyoming will expect similar treatment, he said.

The ESPC will stand strongly for the “one person, one vote” principle during the redistricting process. We want to make sure that your vote counts as much as your neighbor’s.

Plans posted on LSO website

The Legislative Service Office is making an excellent effort to provide information about redistricting. Proposed plans will be made available on the site if they are sponsored by a legislator. Four plans had been posted by Saturday afternoon (July 16) for Albany, Laramie, Natrona and Teton counties. State Rep. Hans Hunt has roughed out a statewide plan that also is available.