Redistricting: a mathematical marathon

In mid-August, when the Census Bureau sends states the breakdown of their population by neighborhoods, a mathematical marathon begins. Every state will race to map new Congressional and legislative districts before candidates must declare for the 2022 state primaries.  

Our commission. three Republicans and three Democrats, will have 90 days to complete a district map that at least four of them support.  

In Idaho the rules are fairly simple. Finish in 90 days. Don’t divide counties unless absolutely necessary.  Don’t link areas that aren’t connected by major roads. Keep the difference in population of districts under 10%. 

Idaho’s population is figured at 1,839,106. The target number for each of our 35 districts is 52,546. 

Now, if our population density was fairly equal, a fourth grade class with a map and a grid could come up with decent districts. Our density, however, varies from about half a person to 267 people per square mile.  

And county lines are a problem, not a help. Idaho’s 44 counties range in population from 833 to 507,233 people. 

Nor are current districts a good guide. This decade five counties grew by over 20%, and six counties lost population. Creating equal-sized districts will require more than adding a bulge here and a pinch there.    

 Ada County has nine districts and Canyon, four plus. Since both counties have grown over 28%, they are sure to get one new district. It’s possible though, that population losses up north will mean more Canyon precincts will be coupled with other counties.  

Living here in the Boise Valley, it’s easy to forget that, in most of Idaho, legislative districts are bigger than counties. Only four other counties–Kootenai, Bonneville, Bannock, and Twin Falls–have populations over the 52,546 target. 

That leaves 14 districts for the other 36 counties.  .

Sound like a challenge you might find interesting?  Hopefully, this redistricting commission, like the 2011 one, will post the census data online so people can share the solutions they work out.  

  A mid-December deadline means legislators will start the 2022 session knowing who their new constituents will be. And potential candidates will have a glimpse of incumbents’ 2022 voting records before choosing which seat to file for.  

What could go wrong?  

We only have to look back at 2011 to see. 

That year commissioners started work in June and held 14 public hearings by the middle of July. They spent a lot of time working on the boundary between Idaho’s two Congressional districts, took a couple weeks off, then worked long days trying to draw a good map. 

They missed their September deadline. The courts ordered the appointment of new commissioners with a Dec. 23 deadline.

The old commissioners, however, kept on working and presented a map to their replacements on September 23. The new commissioners held four hearings and made some changes. On Oct. 18, the Secretary of State announced their map as the “law of the land.” 

Then came the lawsuits.

Counties in central and in northern Idaho filed suits arguing there was no need to divide 11 counties. The Twin Falls County prosecutor presented a map dividing only six counties. On Jan. 18, the Court declared the commission’s map unconstitutional. 

Commissioners met again on Jan. 26 and, two days later, unanimously passed a new map. Twin Falls County was still split three ways, but–with candidate filing starting less than a month away–it did not file another lawsuit.  

Due to Census Bureau trouble with Covid-19, the 2021 commission is starting about 10  weeks later than the first 2011 one.

Let’s hope they get it right the first time.

Published by Judy Ferro

Judy Ferro is communication director for the 2C Dems and a columnist for the Idaho Press.

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