At the close of the 2020 census, Wyoming’s lawmakers — like those in half the states around the nation — will sink their teeth into the arduous task of drawing up the legislative districts that will decide the landscape of the state’s elections over the next decade.
The Joint Committee on Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions, which could potentially handle the task, received a briefing from Legislative Service Office staff several weeks ago outlining what the process may look like in Wyoming and discussing the basic principles of what districts that are truly representative of their residents should look like.
Even though redistricting is more than a year away, some in state government are already lining up to make sure the process doesn’t turn out like it did last time.
Though far too early to say so definitively, some long-tenured members of the Wyoming House of Representatives have already expressed concerns that political maneuvering seen in past redistricting processes could emerge in 2020.
In recent years, the process has been hijacked for the benefit of Senate politics, said Dan Zwonitzer, a longtime Republican state representative from Cheyenne, leading to some unsavory outcomes.
“The legislators who have been around for the previous redistricting continue to have concerns — myself included — about how strong the process was up until we got to session,” Zwonitzer said. “There’s still some grumbling on what happened. Myself and the senior members of the House are determined to make sure there’s no funny business or last-minute changes or political maneuvering in 2020.”
What happened last time?
Wyoming has a number of sideboards in place to prevent politically motivated changes to the state’s legislative districts. That includes a county commissioner-led public input plan and rules in place since the early ‘90s requiring at least two contiguous House districts to be contained within the same Senate district, a concept known as “nesting.”
There are other components to redistricting as well. In Fremont County — which is home to two Native American tribes — redistricting takes racial and demographic considerations into account to a greater degree than other counties, adding a new wrinkle to the process. Oftentimes, that means the reservation gets first consideration in the redistricting process, while the rest of the state’s political subdivisions are constructed around it.
“It’s one big puzzle,” said former Casper Rep. Tim Stubson, who co-chaired the redistricting committee in 2011. “These decisions can ripple across the entire state. You may think you have everything figured out in one part of the state, but things get wonky on the other side.”
To ensure the most accountable process possible, redistricting relies heavily on the input of both the public and local county officials to determine who should represent whom. However, creative redistricting can occur with politics in mind — even in Republican supermajority states like Wyoming.
Following the 2000 census, for example, district lines in Teton County were drawn in a way that divided the purplish county into four districts some felt did not embrace the spirit of a principle called “communities of commonality” — one of the key tenets of a redistricting plan.
The 2002 plan — which lumped conservative towns like Dubois (Fremont County) and Boulder (Sublette County) in with Teton County towns like Wilson — led current independent Sen. Jim Roscoe to describe his district in a 2011 interview with the Star-Tribune as “the most gerrymandered district in the state for the last 10 years.”
However, in a state where tacking on 100 square miles to a district can mean net population gains in the dozens, there remains ample room for gamesmanship. One can look to what happened following the 2010 census, where many speculated that district lines were drawn in a way that incorporated greater amounts of rural land into their urban districts, which individuals like Zwonitzer believe helped to allow a trio of influential Laramie County senators — Curt Meier, Tony Ross and Wayne Johnson — to keep their seats.
Drawn up with the short-game in mind, these districts — one of which, Senate District 6, was drawn to include a prison well outside of its nexus — are now occupied by more conservative Republicans like Cheri Steinmetz, Lynn Hutchings and Anthony Bouchard.
“This is where things kind of got screwed up the last time — and I take the blame — we did some gerrymandering we should have never done,” said Pete Illoway, a former Republican representative from Cheyenne and a member of the redistricting committees after the 2000 and 2010 censuses. “We didn’t do the best job we could’ve.”
Looking toward 2020
While the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions could potentially position itself as the group leading the redistricting process, its role is not necessarily a sure thing. The responsibility ultimately falls on House and Senate leadership, who reserve the right to determine whether that group — or an independent commission of appointed lawmakers — should carry out the redistricting process.
“I’d expect there could be a select committee devoted only to that throughout the next interim,” said Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, that committee’s co-chairman and a member of the Management Council. “Looking back, I can understand where the House of Representatives might be coming from, but you’re always going to get those who think the process went well and those who didn’t.”
Ultimately, preventing any games from taking place will fall on the shoulders of lawmakers themselves. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that political gerrymandering cases “present political questions which are beyond the reach of the federal courts.”
“In other words, such cases are non-justiciable political questions in federal courts and should be decided by the states,” a memo from the LSO read.
What eventually does occur after 2020 is up in the air. Some rumors indicate the Legislature could be slashed from 90 members to 75 — 50 in the House, 30 in the Senate. Others think it can be expanded, as a means to more closely represent diverse communities.
“The goal of keeping current districts as intact as possible has its pluses and minuses,” said Jim King, a University of Wyoming political science professor. “On the plus side, little change in district lines makes redistricting easy and means most people will know who their representative or senator is. Continuing legislator-constituent linkages can enhance representation.”
“On the minus side, little change in district lines means the current partisan distribution of seats will continue,” he added. “The history of redistricting since the move to single-member districts suggests the Legislature will opt to keep changes to a minimum.”
Based on how many people have moved out of — or into — Wyoming over the past decade, districts may inevitably change.
In a state with as dispersed of a population as Wyoming, finding common characteristics between thousands of people living far away from each other will inevitably create some eyebrow-raising constituencies.
If Wyoming’s population continues on the slow decline it’s experienced in recent years — while cities like Douglas, Casper and Cheyenne undergo significant levels of growth — more rural voters may find themselves represented by legislators from communities much different than their own.
While this is most poignant in places like House District 47, which encompasses thousands of square miles between Rock River and western Sweetwater County, others are drawn with the intent of keeping communities with similar beliefs, economies and demographics together.
“We talked about splitting up Rawlins and cutting that huge district down to half the size, which seems to make sense,” Stubson said. “But we went down to Rawlins, and we had a conniption fit about it. They did not want Rawlins to be split up. That was a result of local input.”
With so many intangibles — ensuring Native American representation, keeping like-minded communities together and preserving representatives people want to keep in office — whoever is in charge of redistricting has a lot to consider, and many institutions in place to ensure conversations around redistricting ultimately ensure a more perfect democracy.
But with such an imperfect system — and with most of the influence centered in population centers like Casper and Cheyenne — the question remains: how do you keep politics from tainting the process?
“You can’t,” Illoway said. “I don’t envy anyone doing redistricting in Wyoming.”
Follow politics reporter Nick Reynolds on Twitter @IAmNickReynolds