Republican and Democratic House members had very different reactions Wednesday to a proposal to add a seventh member to the committee that draws legislative district lines.
The seventh member would be picked by a majority vote of five of the state’s statewide officials, all of whom are Republicans, and would likely have the effect of adding a tie-breaking Republican vote to a committee that is split evenly between Republicans and Democrats under current law.
House Republicans put out a news release touting it as a way for the state to avoid gridlock and save on the hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees the state paid due to lawsuits that followed the redistrictings that came after the 2000 and 2010 censuses. Democrats condemned it as an attempt to bring gerrymandering to Idaho.
“We need to be fiscally responsible, and this minor change to the current process helps to promote that,” Rep. Steven Harris, R-Meridian, who is sponsoring the proposed constitutional amendment, said in a news release. “We can’t continue to have a system that is automatically set up for litigation. An odd number of commissioners would eliminate that problem by serving as a tie breaking vote, if needed.”
“Put simply, this will gerrymander Idaho, and make Idaho even more partisan,” said House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding, D-Boise. “Our current system ensures collaboration and fairness. All Idahoans have the right to free and fair elections. Gerrymandering is the scourge of U.S. politics and Idaho is heading that way.”
The seventh member under Harris’ proposal would be chosen by the governor, lieutenant governor, treasurer, controller and superintendent of public instruction.
“This is a fair and proactive approach to the process,” Harris said. “We need to eliminate ways that simply put us all in court. We can’t have what happened to us seven years ago, happen again.”
“Passing this bill would allow Republicans to eliminate any political enemies, Democrat or Republican,” Erpelding said. “It eliminates a bipartisan process and creates a perverse process in which decisions will be made behind closed doors and acted out in public. When the amendment to create the commission passed, it was because Idahoans demanded transparency in government, not secret deals determined in a smoke-filled backroom. That is not the best way to have an effective government.”
Idaho voters passed a constitutional amendment in 1994 creating the current Commission for Reapportionment, which consists of three members appointed by Republicans and three by Democrats. Harris’ proposal to change it is also a constitutional amendment, meaning it would need two-thirds support in both chambers of the Legislature and then would also have to be approved by a majority of voters. Legislative district lines are going to be redrawn after the 2020 Census, making control of the process a matter of rather urgent importance.