Barron: Playing Whac-a-Mole with Wyoming's legislative districts

Barron: Playing Whac-a-Mole with Wyoming's legislative districts

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CHEYENNE — Although the Wyoming Legislature’s 2012 redistricting plan has been panned for various reasons, it was adopted in full sunshine, in well-attended open meetings.

Observers, including the news media, were present when former State Sen. Curt Meier, a Goshen County Republican, brought in his amendment that would create a truly weird-looking configuration of the new Senate District 6.

That amendment would save Meier’s seat because the new design spared him from having to run against a Republican incumbent from Laramie County. Meier is now the state treasurer.

Some of us in the statehouse press corps were taken aback by Meier’s sheer boldness in presenting the deal in an open meeting for everyone to see.

That amendment eventually was adopted by the Legislature after considered floor debate, discussion and dissension. A lawsuit challenging its constitutionality died in a Laramie County district court.

The Legislature has enormous leeway in deciding whether to have open or closed meetings since it excluded itself from the requirements of the open meetings law passed in the early 1970’s.

No one can say the 2012 plan was pieced together in a back room or behind closed doors.

The co-chairman of the committee that developed the plan, Sen. Cale Case of Lander and then-Rep. Pete Illoway of Cheyenne, were responsible for maintaining transparency and holding public hearings across the state.

Case said he and Illoway worked well together and had a great committee.

With the 2020 census nearly upon us, legislative redistricting is again on the agenda. And, according to an article by Star-Tribune political reporter Nick Reynolds, some legislators who were involved in the 2012 effort want to avoid the flaws in that plan and the last-minute political maneuvering.

To me, the worst part of the current plan was including the hundreds of inmates of the Medium Security Prison at Torrington as constituents of Senate District 6. The inmates cannot vote yet were counted. This is called prison gerrymandering and has been condemned by several groups, including the Southern Center for Human Rights.

“The districts with large prisons get to send a representative to the state capital to advocate for their interests without meeting the required number of residents,” the center’s website reads.

“Because prisons are disproportionately built in rural areas but most incarcerated people call urban areas home, counting incarcerated people in the wrong place results in a systematic transfer of population and political influence from urban to rural areas.”

Peter Wagner, the director of the center’s Prison Policy Initiative, said in 2012 that Wyoming Senate District 6 was the most egregious example of intentional prison gerrymandering he had seen.

The Center and Wagner have continued to push for reform with the result that several states, most in the east and south, have adopted laws outlawing the practice of counting inmates as voting constituents in redistricting plans.

Their recent push has been for the Census Bureau to count inmates as residents of their home addresses, rather than the prison they temporarily occupy.

The 2012 redistricting scheme was the first I had followed closely. It seemed like a game of Whac-a-Mole. The committee could make a decision about Teton County, which somehow would have an adverse effect on the rural counties in eastern Wyoming.

Both Case and Illoway have said they regretted what happened to Senate District 6.

Case said that overall, he was proud of the committee’s work, which was difficult, and was acclaimed at the time.

The ideal House district in 2012 was 9,394 persons, Case wrote in an e-mail.

Any time you make a change in any district, it has a ripple affect across broad areas as the Legislature needs to keep the range to within plus or minus five percent.

“Not diluting Teton voters with folks from Dubois was a real achievement,” Case said of the 2012 plan.

He recalled the “floor-meddling” that happened in 2002 regarding Teton County. That plan put the conservative communities of Dubois and Boulder in the same district as Wilson, a Democrat stronghold. Teton County Republicans were responsible for that aspect of the redistricting plan. It was corrected by the 2012 plan which merged Dubois with the rest of Fremont County.

“For fun, I have always thought of this process in terms of slices of pie and doughnuts,” Case wrote. “By this I mean you can draw districts so that ‘slices’ radiate out of a population center and have a mix or denser and less dense habitation. Or you can contain the population center in a district and create vast rural districts around it. Rawlins and Jackson are doughnuts. Cheyenne is a combination with a lot of pie.”

As for me, I always thought of legislative redistricting as a huge headache and am glad I do not have to cover another plan, however great it may be.

Joan Barron is a former longtime capitol bureau reporter. Contact her at 307-632-2534 or jmbarron@bresnan.net.

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