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The whole pie

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Last year the voters in Wisconsin elected Democrats to the U.S. Senate and the offices of governor, attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer – a sweep. In that same election, in the state Senate where 17 seats were on the ballot, Democrats won six, or about a third; and in the House (or, Assembly as it’s called there), Democrats took 36 seats compared to the Republicans’ 63.

Might that at-variance legislative result have happened because of a mass of split tickets – more Wisconsin voters opting for Republicans down-ballot after checking off all those Democrats above? Nope. In the Assembly races, for example, Democrats won 1.3 million votes compared to the Republicans’ 1.1 – while losing seats at a rate approaching two to one.

How could that happen? It’s what can occur when you get clever, and unscrupulous, about how you draw the legislative district maps. Similar stories can be told in other states in recent years, including Pennsylvania and North Carolina; Democrats have done the same in Maryland.

Idaho has managed to evade this sort of thing, mostly. It might not much longer.

The number of legislative seats held by each party should theoretically resemble – at least very roughly – the vote for statewide offices. In many states it does. In Oregon, where a Democratic governor won last year by about six percentage points and the state’s congressional delegation kept its four Democrats and one Republican, the legislature has 56 Democrats and 34 Republicans, a Democratic majority falling between half and two-thirds. In Washington, which has been steadily electing Democrats to top offices for the last couple of decades but sometimes by close margins, the legislature has 84 Democrats and 62 Republicans (one of those an “independent Democrat” who caucuses with Republicans). The splits in those states resemble the overall partisan votes in the state.

In Idaho, there’s also some resemblance, but it’s thinner. Consider the 2018 election, when Republicans won all of the major offices decisively, generally a little above or below the 60 percent mark. (Governor was 59.8 percent, first district U.S. House 62.8 percent, second district 60.7 percent.) So you’d expect Republicans to control the legislature, as they do, and have ever since the election of 1960. So what is the percentage of Republicans in the Idaho Legislature today?

80 percent. That percentage in this cycle actually is the lowest Republican percentage of control at the Idaho Legislature in a couple of decades.

But controlling four seats out of five, a lot more than the three out of five voters would seem to support, apparently isn’t enough for some members of the Idaho Republican caucuses. In some quarters, there’s a perceived need to press the finger a little heavier on the scales.

To be clear about something: Idaho doesn’t today belong the list of gerrymandered states. One reason is that a generation ago, the legislature gave up its reapportionment tasks and, through a constitutional amendment, set up a reapportionment commission (approved by the voters in 1994) evenly balanced between the parties. It has worked, albeit a little messily at times. But the fact that some signoff is needed from both parties has kept the district lines from going too far astray, even if a few of them look a little odd. In a state shaped like Idaho, a few of them always will.

A new piece of legislation, House Joint Resolution 2, was being rushed – not too strong a word – through the legislature to redesign the commission and upset that delicate balance. The proposed constitutional amendment, which still would need approval of the voters to pass, would in effect give Republicans outright control of the redistricting committee, and probably temptation too great to pass up – to clearly gerrymander the legislature to wipe out as many Democratic-leaning or marginal districts as possible. Designing a map with that in mind could cut the number of Democratic districts down to three or two, depending on how the Boise districts were split up.

The resolution got to the House floor last week but then, when uproar ensued, it was kicked back to committee. That may mean it’s dead for the session; “returned to committee” is often another way of killing something. But not necessarily.

If it re-emerges and passes, that could readily give Republicans upwards of 90 percent of the Idaho Legislature. That wouldn’t much resemble the Idaho electorate, but then, that probably would be the point.
 

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