We aren’t going to tell you to vote against House Joint Resolution 4, the proposed constitutional amendment on Idaho’s Nov. 3 ballot.
As far as it goes, it’s a fairly benign proposal — freezing the Legislature to 35 districts, with two House members and one senator apiece.
It could be much worse.
For two decades, the task of realigning Idaho’s growing and shifting population to its 35 legislative districts and two congressional districts has been assigned to a citizens commission consisting of three Republicans and three Democrats.
It’s far from a simple job reaching a consensus about how to squeeze roughly the same number of people into each district in an odd-shaped state without splitting counties or dividing communities of interest.
The process tends to favor Republicans. Statewide, the GOP collects no more than 65 percent of the vote yet it elects more than 80 percent of legislative seats. Nonetheless, Republicans have been frustrated with their lack of dominance. So in 2019, they sought a constitutional amendment that would give them a seventh and deciding vote on the redistricting commission. Amid a popular backlash, the GOP withdrew the idea.
In its place is HJR 4.
If passed, it would eliminate the redistricting commission’s option of eliminating as many as five legislative districts in its quest for a system that represents the one-person one-vote doctrine.
HJR 4 enjoyed broad, bipartisan support. In the House, three members — including Reps. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, and John McCrostie, D-Garden City — voted no. Four senators — all Democrats including Minority Leader Michelle Stennett of Ketchum — opposed it.
Actually, there’s nothing magical about the 35-district model. Back in the 1980s, a court-ordered reapportionment plan added seven districts, swelling the House to 84 members and the Senate to 42. Lawmakers promptly persuaded voters to pass a constitutional amendment bringing the maximum size back down to 35 districts, beginning with the 1992 election.
Given Idaho’s growth spurt in the past decade, shrinking the Legislature makes no sense. The last thing you want to do is cram thousands more people into a smaller number of districts. All that would do is put even more distance between Idaho voters and their part-time representatives in Boise.
Given the expansion of Idaho’s urban centers in the Treasure Valley, eastern Idaho and Kootenai County, reapportionment is going to work a hardship on rural and slow-growth areas, including north central Idaho. Come this time in 2023, those urban areas will have more legislative seats at the expense of others.
Shrinking the Legislature would compound the certain loss of representation that is coming our way, with the inevitable result of even larger so-called “helicopter” districts — so named because a lawmaker would need a helicopter to reach all of his constituents. Case in point is the sprawling 7th Legislative District, which runs all the way from Bonner County to the Adams County line.
These helicopter districts are meant to maintain a rural voice by stringing sparsely populated counties together. Shrinking the number of districts probably would mean diluting the rural voice with more urban precincts — or what has happened more frequently, just the reverse.
That said, the idea of preventing the redistricting commission from even considering a smaller number of district is more than a little bit self-serving. The loss of five districts would put 15 lawmakers out of work.
The measure also is a missed opportunity. The state might benefit from a larger Legislature. Why aren’t we talking about adding five legislative districts?
Or, in the alternative, why not give half of a given district the right to elect its own House member?
There’s every reason to vote yes on HJR 4.
Don’t you wish it just had a little more to offer? — M.T.