Idaho voters have an opportunity come November to freeze the number of legislative districts in the state at 35 — setting the bar, if not in stone, then at least in the Idaho Constitution.
Article III, Section 4 of the constitution currently allows the state to be divided into “not less than 30 nor more than 35 legislative districts.”
However, with another redistricting cycle looming on the horizon, some state lawmakers see that flexibility as problematic. Fewer districts means more people per district, which makes it harder for representatives and constituents to interact on a regular basis. A smaller number of districts also means larger geographic distances — something that’s already an issue in rural areas like the 7th Legislative District, which stretches from Riggins in the south to Sandpoint in the north.
It’s been more than 100 years since Idaho had fewer than 35 districts. To eliminate any chance of that happening during the 2021 redistricting effort, the Legislature adopted a joint resolution earlier this year that would amend Section 4 and peg the number of districts at 35.
“As Idaho grows in population, our citizens are better served with more legislative districts, rather than fewer,” said House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, during a brief House discussion of the proposed constitutional amendment in February.
The resolution passed 65-3 in the House and 31-4 in the Senate, with no debate in either body. It requires a simple majority in November to be adopted.
Redistricting or “reapportionment” occurs every 10 years, following the decennial census.
In Idaho, a six-member Citizens Commission on Reapportionment is tasked with taking the latest census figures and dividing the state into legislative and congressional districts approximately equal in population.
However, former state senator Ron Beitelspacher, of Grangeville, noted that population is just one of several variables commission members need to keep in mind when redistricting the state.
For example, the new districts must preserve “communities of interest” and local precinct boundaries as much as possible. Most importantly, county lines can’t be split any more than absolutely necessary; while counties can be divided into multiple districts internally, parts of neighboring counties can’t be combined to form a single district unless there’s no other alternative — even if the move makes sense from a practical standpoint.
“The redistricting process is governed by state statute, by the federal and state constitutions and by Supreme Court decisions,” said Beitelspacher, who served as a Democratic appointee on the second reapportionment commission in 2011-12, which was created after the first commission failed to agree on a reapportionment plan.
Given all the variables at play, Beitelspacher said the citizens commission needs all the flexibility it can get to adjust district boundaries. Consequently, he doesn’t support limiting it to 35 districts.
“It’s the wrong solution to a real problem,” he said. “If they want to increase the number of districts (to more than 35), they have my total support. But to set it at 35 just creates a mess. It ties the hands of the commission and doesn’t allow for more effective representation in rural areas.”
Idaho had 44 districts — one for each county — throughout much of its history. That ended in the mid-1960s, though, after the U.S. Supreme Court deemed a similar model in Alabama unconstitutional. Because county-based districts result in widely varying representation on a per-capita basis, the court said they violate the Equal Protection Clause.
Idaho was subsequently reapportioned into 35 districts in 1966. That’s where things stayed until 1984, when a Coeur d’Alene judge instituted the short-lived “floterial” districting model, in response to another lawsuit.
The floterial model included 35 “regular” legislative districts, plus seven overlying floterial districts that equalized population differences. Voters would vote for candidates in their underlying district, plus a separate slate of candidates in the floterial district.
Beitelspacher, who represented a floterial district that included the five counties in north central Idaho, said they were the “fairest, most balanced” method of reapportioning the state.
Nevertheless, floterial districts were banned after voters approved a 1986 constitutional amendment. They remained in effect until a new reapportionment plan was implemented for the 1992 election. That’s when Idaho returned to 35 legislative districts, where it’s been ever since.
“It seems to suit us well,” Bedke said, during his discussion of the amendment in February. “We’ve become accustomed to 35.”
While Idaho may eventually need more than 35 districts to adequately represent its growing population, Bedke was reluctant to address that issue in this amendment.
“When you bring that up, everyone in the room has a different idea for what that should look like,” he said. “What we need to do right now is to peg it at 35, so it’s predictable. Then the reapportionment commission knows what it has to work with. And should their (redistricting) plan be challenged in court, the court will know what it has to work with.”
During the Senate vote on the amendment, Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, spoke in support of the change.
“This isn’t about politics,” he said. “It’s about how we want the people of Idaho to be represented. The difference between 30 and 35 might not sound like much, but the smaller the districts are, the better; 35 is better than 30.”
William L. Spence may be contacted at email@example.com or (208)-791-9168.