Friday, May 20, 2011

From blue to red?

Redistricting could change the political leanings of District 25

Express Staff Writer

Michelle Stennett

Blaine County could no longer be at the heart of Democratic stronghold District 25 after this year, as the state prepares to redraw the legislative district boundaries this summer.

State law requires that all districts be about equal in population. According to data from the 2010 census, District 25 is about 6,000 residents behind the target number of 46,000 set by the state.

All four counties in District 25—Blaine, Camas, Lincoln and Gooding—experienced modest bumps in population according to the census. However, the state overall has grown 21 percent since 2000. When the Redistricting Commission begins redrawing boundaries in June, the group of six will need to add people to District 25, likely by adding a county or part of a county.

A variance of 10 percent difference in population is allowed under federal law, so it is still uncertain how many people will need to be added to the district or where these people will come from. Calls to the Office of the Secretary of State and the Idaho Commission on Reapportionment to confirm the likelihood of line changes were not returned as of press time.

"That will be the big debate," said state Sen. Michelle Stennett, a Democrat from Ketchum. "We'll have to have [the commission] decide exactly what we need to fill the gap with."

The district could take on part of Elmore County, Jerome County or the entirety of Custer County, though a 2002 decision by the Idaho Supreme Court upheld the state's preference for annexing whole rather than partial counties into a district. Stennett, who sits on the Senate State Affairs Committee, said Custer County is the most likely candidate for inclusion, because its population of just over 4,600 people is close to the number of additional people needed.

Stennett said adding Custer would change the face of the district, possibly weakening District 25's Democratic leanings.

"When you take on more and more Republican voters, you are going to make the Democratic voters in your area have less of an impact," she said. "But we always have worked for all of our district. Hopefully, we'll still manage to do that no matter who else we absorb."

Stennett said adding the geographically large county would also have an impact on the legislators' ability to interact with constituents.

"It'll be four and a half hours of driving to reach your entire district," she said. "That definitely has an impact on how you campaign."

Stennett said the district number could change as well, and that Republicans are likely to pick up at least a few seats throughout the state. She said that because redividing the districts can change the political leanings of a given area, legislators often lobby the commission to keep the dominant parties of an area the same.

"Everybody is going to want to keep their seats," Stennett said. "There's going to be a little bit of turf war about that."

The six commissioners are appointed by the majority and minority leaders in the House and Senate and the two chairs of the state Republican and Democratic parties.

To reduce the likelihood of politics influencing districting decisions, the commissioners must not have served in an elected office for at least two years and are not allowed to run for the Legislature for five years following redistricting.

However, the partisan appointments to the commission often lead to gridlock, when the parties are split on proposed district maps. In that case, as in 2001, the decision will be made by the Idaho Supreme Court.

Stennett said she expects the issue to be decided by the court this time as well.

"I can't imagine it would be different," she said.

The commission is set to be appointed and convene by June 7, after which it will have 90 days to draft a proposed district map. Final plans must be filed by Sept. 4.

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