Closer to home

idaho RANDY
STAPILUS
 
The Idaho
Column

Here’s an idea to get your mind around: A legislature in which you’re represented by two rather than three state lawmakers, with legislators elected from 105 rather than 35 districts. In which the number of legislators overall is the same as it is right now.

Welcome to the way Oregon apportions its legislature, and the way a group of legislators in Washington state – a liberal and a moderate Democrat and a conservative Republican – are proposing it be done there. A way that could be done, too, in Idaho.

It’s less complicated than I made it sound a couple of paragraphs back, and barely more complicated than what Idaho does now. Idaho has (and has had since 1966, with a six-year interruption) 35 districts, roughly equal in population, each represented by one senator and two representatives. Washington state does the same with 49 districts.

Oregon has 90 legislators, and like the other two has twice as many representatives as senators. But its districts are different. It has 30 Senate districts; on the House level each of those Senate districts is split in half, those halves each electing one representative, 60 in all. For a total of 90. That gives each representative a smaller group of constituents to worry about, and theoretically at least gives the voters better access to and more influence with their representative. You could argue that it makes the House “closer to the people” without increasing the number of legislators.

A bill proposed by three Washington House members, liberal Democrat Hans Dunshee, moderate Democrat Dawn Morrell and conservative Republican Hans Zeiger (inevitably, the “Hans and Hans bill”) has been introduced there instructing the next redistricting commission (which Washington, like Idaho but unlike Oregon, has) to split up the legislature in the separate-House-district way.

In Washington, that would mean House districts of about 70,000 people instead of the current 140,000. In Idaho, that would mean House districts of about 22,500 people each rather than 45,000 or so.

There is some precedent in Idaho for this.

Originally, Idaho had 44 senators – one for each county – and House members at one or more per county depending on population. When in the mid-60s court orders threw out that system, the 35-district approach was launched, but at first not exactly as we know it now. Six of the 35 districts (but not the 29 others) were split between A and B House districts. (I’d be interested in knowing how and why those six were picked out.) District 9 (in effect, the Senate district), for example, included Adams, Valley, Boise and Gem counties, but House 9A included just the first three, and 9B just Gem. In District 20, a senator represented Lemhi, Custer, Clark and Jefferson counties, but a House A representative covered Lemhi and Custer while House B had Jefferson and Clark. Like those districts, the other four were in relatively rural areas with large square mileage. That system ended after redistricting in 1971.

Idahoans concerned about the extravagant size of some of today’s mega-sized rural district (District 7, say, which runs from just outside Sandpoint to south of Riggins) might give thought to what Idaho did then, and what the Washington Hanses are pursuing now.

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