Every decade, hundreds of workers scatter throughout neighborhoods across the United States in an effort to count every man, woman and child for the U.S. Census. The massive data-gathering effort is critical — the data helps decide everything from the amount of money that flows into towns to the number of seats that states have in the House of Representatives.
Once compiled, the information will also be used as a baseline for drawing state legislative boundaries.
As it turns out, there’s more than one way to go about it, and though the Supreme Court has ruled that state legislative districts must be drawn to reflect substantially equal populations, the system allows enough slack for the redistricting process to be gamed to benefit the parties in power at the time districts are drawn – a very real reality in the 25 states where state legislatures decide where the lines fall.
States like Ohio, Virginia and North Carolina have gained significant amounts of media attention in recent years for their gerrymandering practices, and – even in supermajority-controlled states like Wyoming – gerrymandering can be utilized to maintain a status quo by generating artificial constituencies that can help prop up favorite sons of the establishment.
While the actual hearings are a long ways away – set to take place primarily during the 2021 interim session – state lawmakers have already been weighing their options. The topic of redistricting first came up late in the summer. Then earlier this month, members of the Joint Committee on Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions met in the capital for a briefing outlining all the different ways they could actually go about carrying out redistricting.
There are limits to what can be done here, all of which are outlined in-depth in a briefing by the Legislative Service Office provided to members in November. Wyoming is one of just 22 states that require the use of census data for legislative redistricting. The state, which is home to two Native American tribes, also requires native populations to be considered before all other communities.
The Legislature must evenly divide 30 Senate seats and 60 seats in the House of Representatives – a number dictated by the constitution – and must have at least two representative districts within each Senate district, a rule made permanent in 1992 following a court case challenging the state’s maps at the time.
Redistricting is a long and thorough process, involving miles of travel, numerous meetings and countless hours of community input – all with census data guiding the way. But however stringent the rules may be, the parameters of redistricting do allow ample opportunities for some creative gamesmanship. And while hijinks in Wyoming’s system have been minimal over the years, they can be impactful.
An effort to maintain safe districts for a number of high-ranking GOP officials in 2010 notably created a district spanning Goshen and Laramie counties won by Sen. Anthony Bouchard, who defeated the moderate, five-term Representative Dave Zwonitzer in a 2016 Senate Primary, though a near-even three-way division in votes at the primary stage was another likely contributor. (Complicating the narrative is the fact Zwonitzer’s wife, Kym, ran a near-successful independent bid against Bouchard in the 2016 general election, losing by just several hundred votes.)
At the same time, the legal constraints in place today have made it so lawmakers are essentially forced to create districts that seem unreasonable at times: not just to fulfill the obligations set forth by law, but to ensure as few lawmakers as possible are forced to run to represent new constituencies. In a state where fewer than 100 votes can often decide an election, a strict application of the rules in one setting can create leeway for creativity in another, effectively helping to game the system.
While a nonpartisan committee – rather than one made up of legislators – could be pursued under a moonshot scenario, such a mechanism could be equally susceptible to influence. A recent piece published by Pew documented the plight of independent, volunteer commissioners who were subjected to harassment and influence by party activists who disagreed with them.
To avoid problems in Wyoming under its current system, two things will probably need to happen: citizens will need to participate and be heard, and county clerks – the people who know their counties best – will need to be engaged to ensure the process goes smoothly.
The Week AheadMonday:
Management Council meets in Cheyenne.
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Gov. Mark Gordon meets with the Casper Star-Tribune’s editorial staff for an on-record event in Casper.
State Loan and Investment Board meets in Cheyenne. Natrona County GOP meets in Casper.
Have an event you’d like highlighted here? Email me with the date, time, and place!Wyoming Politics
As you’d expect, Thanksgiving week is often a very slow news week. Check next week’s 307 Politics for more headlines!Should Wyoming woo a crypto revolution? The issue has received a lot of press over the last year, but WyoFile’s Andrew Graham did an effective job pulling together all that’s been happening in the blockchain and cryptocurrency world the past few months, taking a look at how the bills were made to what we have to gain from it all. (via WyoFile)
Wyoming GOP scores invite to President Trump’s Christmas party: Early next month, top officials within the Wyoming GOP will travel to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Donald Trump and other key White House figures at the president’s annual Christmas reception at the White House. Invitees include Chairman Frank Eathorne, National Committeewoman and former Wyoming Rep. Marti Halverson, National Committeeman Corey Steinmetz and his wife, Sen. Cheri Steinmetz. (via Trib.com)
Around Wyoming2019 beet harvest halted:
In Park County, more than one-third of the region’s valuable sugar beet crop will remain in the ground after the Western Sugar Co-op declared the harvest over last week. (via the Powell Tribune)
Designers unveil building plans for ICE facility outside Evanston: Here’s the latest in the long saga concerning Uinta County’s efforts to bring an Immigration and Customs Enforcement-run detention facility to the community. (via the Uinta County Herald)Eye On WashingtonIt was Thanksgiving Week, so not much to report. Check back next time!Have any tips or suggestions to make this newsletter better? Let me know! Call me at 307-266-0634, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter, @IAmNickReynolds