Redistricting could get ugly :Break out the popcorn as battles begin over new political district boundaries to be formed

William L. Spence
May 3, 2010

This is the conclusion of a two-day series of stories on the census.

Let the political theater begin.

Yes, it's still a year away, but now that the 2010 census count has moved into the mop-up phase people can start looking forward to the main purpose of the decennial process: reapportionment and redistricting.

Theater may be too genteel a word for what's about to take place. Historically, redistricting has been the political equivalent of tag-team wrestling, complete with biting, kicking and gouging. Partisanship is expected, lawsuits are likely, popcorn is essential.

The 2001 redistricting effort, for example, featured three lawsuits in Idaho plus secret meetings and retroactive approvals in Washington. It was remarkable not only for its entertainment value, but for the fact that nothing out of the ordinary happened, judging by the standards of previous redistricting episodes.

Given the restrictions and political tensions inherent in the process, redistricting often produces head-scratching results. In 1991, Washington's redistricting commission somehow concluded that Clarkston should be split between two legislative districts. It was the smallest community in the state - maybe even the nation - to be so divided. For the next 10 years, voters were unsure whether they lived in the 16th District along with the rest of Asotin County or in the 9th District with Pullman and Whitman County.

Legal challenges following the 1981 redistricting prompted the Idaho Supreme Court to create seven "floterial" legislative districts - larger districts that overlay several smaller districts. Voters could then elect representatives in two districts: their local one, plus the overlying floterial district. That procedure lasted from 1984 through 1990.

Both states currently delegate responsibility for redistricting to an independent citizens' commission (see related story).

The process starts with the 2010 census population figures, which should be available for the county, city and tract level by next April. The basic objective is to create congressional and legislative districts that come as near as possible to the "target" or average population number. Other desirable characteristics of good districts include well-defined boundaries - such as county lines or physical features like rivers and mountain ranges - as well as shared interests so minority groups aren't disenfranchised.

Regarding congressional reapportionment, states will learn in January whether they'll gain or lose seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Election Data Services, a Virginia-based election and census consulting firm, estimates that 10 seats will change hands beginning with the 2012 election cycle.

Idaho will maintain its two House seats, but Washington appears to be in line for a 10th seat.

The redistricting commission will decide where that new congressional district goes. David Ammons, communications director for the Washington Secretary of State's Office, thinks it will be wedged in somewhere in the greater Puget Sound region.

"That's where most of the new growth has gone," he said. "The 3rd (Congressional) District is too large and needs to shrink. The thinking is that Olympia and Thurston County may split off and become part of a new Puget Sound district."

That could result in some minor boundary adjustments for the 5th Congressional District in eastern Washington, but it's unlikely to affect the southeastern corner of the state.

Legislative redistricting, on the other hand, will almost certainly alter district boundaries across north central Idaho and southeastern Washington.

Idaho's projected 2010 population, according to Election Data Services, is 1,559,687. Dividing that by 35 legislative districts yields a projected target population for each district of 44,562, up from 36,970 in 2001.

The redistricting commission can vary from that number somewhat, but not substantially. If the biggest and smallest districts differ in population by more than about 10 percent, it raises the potential for a legal challenge.

That's what tripped up the 2001 redistricting commission. Its first plan featured a 10.7 percent difference between the smallest district (Latah County) and the largest. The plan was tossed by the Idaho Supreme Court on that basis. The commission then approved a second plan with an 11.8 percent deviation, which the court also rejected.

Given that their current populations are 12 percent to 19 percent less than the 2011 target of 44,562, the 10 percent threshold means all three legislative districts in north central Idaho are likely to grow (see population numbers).

"It will be difficult for Latah County and Nez Perce County to maintain individual (legislative) districts, as they have for the last 10 years," said Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston. "In general, rural areas statewide have either lost population or not gained it as rapidly as Ada County and other urban areas in Idaho. So the urban areas will get more representation in the Legislature and the rural districts will have to get larger to pick up additional populations."

That raises the possibility that Clearwater and Lewis counties could split away from District 8 and be paired with Latah and Nez Perce counties, respectively. District 8 would then have to add counties to the south to reach the target population.

In 2001, the redistricting commission started at the north end of the state and moved south and east. That led to a number of difficulties, including counties being split between two districts. Stegner hopes the 2011 commission will review that history and find a better approach next year.

"A better way would be to come down from the north on one side and start from the east and move west on the other," he said. "You'd meet in Boise and Ada County, where you have enough population to shift boundaries block by block, rather than having to split counties. It would be a smoother operation."

In Washington, Election Data Services is projecting a statewide population of 6,738,886, or an average of 137,528 for 49 legislative districts. The 9th District's current population isn't readily available, but Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, believes it will have to expand to reach that target number.

"I guarantee we'll get larger," he said. "I would expect us to move more into Franklin County and possibly Grant County."