CHEYENNE – Late in the day Wednesday, a Wyoming legislative committee voted 8-6 in favor of a motion that would support the “I-80 Compromise” plan for redistricting.
But Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, who co-chairs the Legislature’s Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Interim Committee, said he opposed the proposal.
“The way it is drawn causes huge concerns for what I would say are our two rural (representatives) and our rural senator,” Zwonitzer said before voting against the motion. “To be drawn into the city of Cheyenne, I am certain that is not what any of them would like, because they all enjoy being rural reps.”
The I-80 Compromise, proposed by Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas, would also potentially split Albany County into regions in ways it is not currently split.
“I think we have to have a final vote at the start of whenever we meet next, when we see the plan,” co-Chairman Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, said. “If this splits Weston County, I am a no vote. There is no way to have an actual, honest vote until we have seen a statewide plan.”
Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, said the way forward is clear.
“We have to go home and work regionally to fit this in with everybody else,” Case said. “We are going to have to have another meeting next week. I am pretty sure it is going to happen.”
Discussion of states’ rights
Earlier in the meeting, discussion devolved into federal overreach into states’ rights, with committee members pushing back against another legislator’s public comment defending the “one man, one vote” principle.
It began with discussion about whether counties could remain “whole” in the redistricting process, when Rep. Bill Fortner, R-Gillette, said his county would love to be a district in and of itself. Fortner referenced Article 3, Section 3 of the Wyoming State Constitution, which was found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, but said that each county “shall constitute a senatorial and representative district.”
“It is no secret that Campbell County wants to remain whole, and that we have the numbers to do that,” Fortner said.
According to a memo from the Wyoming Legislative Service Office presented to the committee early on in the redistricting process, the U.S. Supreme Court has found that state legislative districts are required to be “substantially equal in population under the Equal Protection Clause.”
The Supreme Court specifically considered “whether the Senate of a state could be determined by county boundaries, similar to the allocation of two U.S. senators to each state, despite substantial population deviations between the states.” However, the Supreme Court found that unlike an entire state, “political subdivisions” of states, such as counties and cities, “never were and never have been considered as sovereign entities,’” the LSO memo read.
“There has been a lot of talk, and it has come from one of the major parties in the state of Wyoming, that we should put this back to the people, to reaffirm county-based boundaries, like we could magically do that,” Case said.
The Legislature is bound to undergo a redistricting process every 10 years, based on current census data, per the “one person, one vote” rule contained in the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The legislators are also tasked with ensuring each district is substantially equal to every other, at a 5% deviation in size.
“There are lots of county lines that are entirely whole, and it is a good thing if we can do that,” Case said. “But there is no fix in the Constitution that we can do that.”
Fortner pushed back.
“So we have allowed the federal government to come into Wyoming and tell us we cannot add something to our Wyoming Constitution, is that – have we let that happen?”
Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson, clarified that it is not the federal government that made the decision.
“It is up to the Supreme Court of the United States to decide what is or is not constitutional, based on their power to decide interpretations of the U.S. Constitution,” Yin said. “That segment of our state constitution is not constitutional under the U.S. Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land.”
Fortner called the result a “crying shame.”
“If we have allowed that to happen with one part of our constitution, what is to prevent them from doing it with the rest of it? It is a crying shame that we stood back and let that happen,” he said.
Rep. Charlie Scott, R-Casper, said that no one in Wyoming had anything to do with the decision.
“We in Wyoming had nothing to do with the key relevant provision in the federal Constitution. That was put there by the Constitutional Convention in 1789, ‘88, and it has been there ever since. It is the supreme law of the land,” Scott said. “We had a Civil War over the issue, and it is a settled issue.”
Fortner replied that the 10th Amendment gave states the right to rule without federal overreach.
“I believe personally the Founding Fathers of the U.S. Constitution gave us the right to tell the federal government to go pack sand if we wanted to,” Fortner said.
Case responded that this discussion is one that needs to happen in public.
“This is in front of the people of Wyoming, and this is why we are doing things. It is important that it be aired,” Case said. “We hear a lot about the 10th Amendment that gives states rights, and it is an important amendment. But so are the post-Civil War era amendments that were passed, including the 14th Amendment, that requires that everyone’s vote be treated equally, extended to the states.”
Zwonitzer said that after the current redistricting process, the state may need to explore the idea of having an independent redistricting commission following future census years.
“There has been discussion, and it seems to be coming from both sides, politically and ideologically, that A), we need a redistricting commission, or B), we need a constitution or statutory language. Maybe if we all survive redistricting, we can do a post-mortem in the 2022 interim,” Zwonitzer said.
What to do with Bighorn Basin?
The committee revisited the idea of putting the Bighorn Basin region within the typical standard deviation allowed for a legislative district, when, in the current proposed plan, the Basin sits below population standards. Each district, according to 2020 census numbers, should include 9,614 residents, but the committee voted to allow four counties in the Bighorn Basin to draw districts at 6.2% below population.
Rep. Joe MacGuire, R-Casper, made a motion to bring the Basin back into the allowable plus or minus 5% deviation.
“I think that we are making a mistake to leave the Basin outside of deviation,” MacGuire said. “I think we are asking for trouble to move forward without bringing the Basin into conformity.”
Several legislators echoed his thoughts, including Case.
“I do think that we need to continue to look at things to get the Basin back into balance,” Case said. “I do wish we would take another look at the Bighorn to share the load a bit.”
But Driskill disagreed.
“We have talked about this since meeting one, and the committee agreed we were going to submit a plan out of deviation,” Driskill said. “And here we are, six, seven, eight meetings later, recreating the wheel and starting over again. At some point, this committee has to make a decision on which direction they go, and they have to stand by it.”
The motion to bring the Bighorn Basin region into deviation failed by a 5-7 vote.
De-nesting idea goes nowhere
The committee also talked about whether Senate and House districts would be nested together, after requesting a de-nesting proposal from staff for five districts.
“I am not sure I actually saw any official de-nesting proposals besides Sen. Boner’s for his area,” Zwonitzer said.
Boner said if he was the only one to submit a de-nesting plan, he would not spend much committee time on the proposal. Yin said the people he reached out to in his region were not interested in de-nested plans.
“That was met with either apathy, or, in another case, unhappiness,” Yin said.
Zwonitzer said that in Laramie County, brief discussions were held about running at-large, but there was no plan submitted from Laramie County, either.
“The de-nesting idea might not be as popular as this committee thought it was,” Zwonitzer said.