CHEYENNE – Wyoming lawmakers have begun the lengthy and involved process of redrawing legislative district maps for the next decade.
The Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Interim Committee’s June 7 meeting marked the beginning of months of data crunching, discussion and negotiation on how population changes recorded in the 2020 census will affect representation in the Wyoming Legislature. The results could impact sitting legislators, shift the voting tendencies of individual districts, affect the partisan representation in the House and Senate and have unforeseen implications on policymaking.
The process will not be simple. Without a complete data set from the U.S. Census Bureau, lawmakers still do not fully understand how populations changed in cities, counties and towns when the count was tallied on April 1, 2020. They also have to identify any laws regulating the state’s electoral districts they would like to change. These could range from rules governing how communities are assigned representatives to the ultimate number of members of the Legislature there will be.
Here’s a guide to how the process will unfold:
How redistricting works
The Wyoming Constitution provides that the House must have at least twice the number of members as the Senate. Right now, there are 60 House districts and 30 Senate districts. Each is defined by a number of characteristics, including distinct neighborhoods, geography and demographics.
With every new census, those characteristics can fluctuate, spurred by anything from new development in a downtown neighborhood to a bust in the oil and gas fields. Members of the Legislature, with the help of local officials, are tasked with redrawing the maps every decade to reflect those changes in a manner that ensures equitable representation.
Once county-level census data (or at least estimates) are available, lawmakers – with the help of a Geographic Information Systems consultant and legal counsel – will compare demographic changes from the 2010 to 2020 census in an effort to gauge where the most significant redraws will need to occur.
From there, specific committee members (typically hailing from the Corporations Committee) begin the lengthy process of meeting with local residents and officials to fine tune where the lines will ultimately fall.
Once preliminary maps are drawn, the plan will go to the full Legislature for approval during the 2022 Budget Session this winter.
Though Wyoming is unlikely to see major shifts to its district maps due to its anemic growth, the process still has potential for significant implications.
Senate District 6 in Laramie County, for example, reaches across a county line to capture the population of a corrections facility. Some urban areas, such as Laramie, have seen a rash of new development on their outskirts. And in Sublette County, notable fluctuations in the natural gas industry have occurred over the last several years, impacting employment and residency numbers there.
Keeping communities together
Federal law mandates redistricting efforts incorporate the principle of “one man, one vote.” In a nutshell, this means lawmakers must design maps in an effort to ensure Wyoming’s voters are divided into as equal proportions as possible, and that lawmakers represent “people, not trees,” according to the National Constitution Center.
But in Wyoming, this task is often easier said than done. Wyoming is defined by small population centers dotting a massive land area and distinct landscapes like the Red Desert and the Bighorn Basin. To keep district sizes in balance and population counts even, lawmakers often have to represent numerous communities with distinct interests.
That equilibrium is easier to find in some districts than others. The Wind River Indian Reservation in Fremont County, for example, is clearly distinct from the surrounding area, enabling district drawers to keep most reservation residents in the same district. Larger municipalities also offer lawmakers more flexibility in defining where district lines fall. While some, like Cheyenne, use a “pie slice” model in which urban neighborhoods are lumped in with more rural neighborhoods, cities like Casper have districts that occasionally consist of a distinct portion of the city, like Rep. Jerry Obermueller’s largely urban House District 56. These districts are typically the first to be mapped out.
Keeping similar populations together in more sparsely populated regions can often be a challenge, however, resulting in districts that can span hundreds of miles of terrain.
Senate District 11 and House District 47 – represented by Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, and Rep. Jerry Paxton, R-Encampment, respectively – both stretch from the outskirts of Albany County to the edge of Rock Springs, and from the state’s southern border to the base of the Pathfinder Wildlife Refuge in Natrona County. Other lawmakers, like Senate Majority Leader Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, have represented rural districts that overlap the borders of multiple counties, meaning even greater workloads for politicians representing the interests of several counties.
“In my first term, I represented five counties at one time,” Driskill said. “You’ve got five county governments, six or seven school boards […] there is a huge difference in quality representation. One man, one vote is fine. But also for them to have adequate representation means that representatives have to be able to do a quality job.”
Legal challenges, complications
Lawmakers have some leeway when it comes to drawing rural districts. According to Ben Williams, a redistricting expert with the National Council on State Legislatures who testified June 7, the “one man, one vote” principle is continually evolving at the state level, and rural districts may have some ability to deviate from the standard to keep communities of interest together.
However, litigation is often an inevitability in states’ redistricting efforts. In testimony to lawmakers, Legislative Service Office attorney Ted Hewitt described a number of lawsuits that have come to shape the fundamental principles of redistricting in Wyoming.
Lawmakers could change the law to avoid some of these challenges. In 1992, for example, the Wyoming Legislature voted to do away with multi-member districts, in which more than one senator or representative was elected to represent the entire district. Many political observers, such as longtime Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, said that change was a prime contributor to a decline in political and demographic diversity in the Legislature.
The Legislature could change the number of legislative districts, according to the Legislative Service Office, but only as long as lawmakers hold to the principle of twice as many House districts than Senate districts.
Hijacking the process
While redistricting in Wyoming is bound by strict protocols, the process is still prone to some gamesmanship.
An amendment during the 2002 redistricting process, for example, split the Town of Jackson – arguably the most progressive district in Wyoming – into two districts.
During the last redistricting process, in 2011, some lawmakers were accused of drawing questionable lines of demarcation in their home districts to help preserve their election chances, including the border-jumping line to include a prison in Senate District 6.