The boundary debate looms

By: 
Bob Bonnar

Bob Bonnar

NLJ Publisher

 

When the U.S. Census Bureau released preliminary figures from its 2020 census on Monday, it officially signaled the start of the debate in the Wyoming State Legislature over legislative redistricting. Lawmakers tasked with redrawing the boundaries of the state’s legislative districts over the course of the next year got their first glimpse of the numbers that will ultimately dictate their decisions, and some of the most basic parameters of the debate can now be defined.

But numbers don’t tell the entire tale, and this is a story that began long before census-takers began the chore of counting Wyoming’s residents a little more than a year ago.

For the people of Newcastle and Weston County, it began when the Wyoming State Legislature last approved legislative districts in 2012. As a result of that exercise, the boundary for House and Senate districts representing the county were drawn right through the heart of Newcastle, effectively dividing the county.

At the time, local officials and some residents feared that the community’s voice in state government would be diluted — or even lost — because the voting blocks of Newcastle and Weston County were effectively split as well.

“I would really suggest that you guys get lined up for 10 years from now because you’re the big loser in this deal,” State Senator Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, said after his district, Senate District 1, was radically altered in 2012. 

Prior to redistricting he had represented Crook, Weston and Niobrara counties, and Newcastle, the most populated city in any of the three counties, was effectively right in the middle of that district. Redistricting moved the southern half of his former district, including Newcastle, into Senate District 3, which was represented by Curt Meier of LaGrange, a town more than 170 miles away. Senate District 1 was expanded to the west to encompass part of Campbell County, which became the dominant county voting block in the district.

“I think it’s absolutely tragic that we’ve left the big and powerful with bigger and stronger voices, and the smaller and under-represented with an even weaker voice. It’s not what the framers of the Wyoming Constitution wanted to happen,” Driskill said at the time.

His sentiments were echoed by local officials who feared Newcastle and Weston County were going to find it harder to influence decisions in the
state capital.

“Because those [legislative] districts have fallen into the urban centers, we are losing our voice,” County Commissioner Marty Ertman said after the new legislative boundaries were approved in 2012.

Driskill and Ertman had both been elected to their posts in 2010, and the fact that they were relative political newcomers made it more difficult for either to influence the outcome of the redistricting debate, although both tried.

Representative Hans Hunt, R-Newcastle, was also newly elected when the debate about redistricting began in 2011, and his efforts to introduce amendments and offer his own redistricting plan in an attempt to “keep Weston County whole” also failed to gain traction, either in committee meetings or on the floor.

“The way that the district lines fell 10 years ago was not what we were hoping for,” Hunt, now a veteran lawmaker and former Wyoming House Majority Whip, told the News Letter Journal last week.

 

Making lemons 

out of lemonade

The actual impact of that last redistricting exercise, however, may not have been as negative as local officials feared at the time.

“I don’t think Newcastle has been represented well at all because of the way districting went. I don’t know that it hurt us, but I don’t know that it has done us any good either,” Newcastle City Clerk/Treasurer Greg James said.

When the issue of redistricting was debated a decade ago, James was Newcastle’s mayor. In response to the legislature’s decision to split Newcastle’s voting block into two different senate districts, he encouraged local residents and interest groups to use the new reality as an opportunity to double-down on their advocacy by contacting the senators representing both districts to voice their concerns and provide local input.

“We need to be in contact directly with them, and need to be pounding on them,” James said in 2012.

Those sentiments were echoed by Driskill at the time, and he encouraged voters in Newcastle and Weston County to turn the situation into an advantage by demanding representation from their senators.

“I would recommend you use the heck out of everybody. I would stand hard on Curt, and he’ll represent you fine,” Driskill said. “Stand on me and use me as well. You do have multiple representation across those lines, and they’re obligated to represent you. I would not let them forget that, regardless of where they live. You’re alright as long as you fight to keep your representation, but if you let down, they’ll head north and south on you,” Driskill warned.

Local officials and voters alike took his words to heart, and Weston County’s legislative delegation actually grew in some respects because of efforts made by those involved to strengthen lines of communication.

“On the whole, local governments did try to keep me informed, and I made a conscious effort to keep in touch with them on my end,” said Hunt.

Meier, who had suddenly become Newcastle’s senator, said he actually welcomed the opportunity to serve Niobrara and southern Weston counties when his district shifted north.

“It wasn’t hard. The folks in Newcastle and Lusk are even more conservative than the folks around Torrington, and I’m more conservative too,” he told the News Letter Journal on Tuesday. “The Weston County people were just a great group of people, and easy to talk to.”

Meier admitted that the size of his new district presented some challenges, but said that logging miles to cover large legislative districts is not unusual in Wyoming. He was re-elected to serve Senate District 3 in 2014, but stepped away from the legislature after that term when he successfully ran for the office of Wyoming State Treasurer. Meier said that the experience of covering a large district actually prepared him for his race for statewide office.

“It really kind of helped me in my state endeavors to have that aspect of having to travel and reach out to folks,” he reasoned.

Meier wasn’t the only legislator representing Weston County whose star rose through the course of the last decade. Hunt rose rapidly to a leadership position in the House and spent time as the chair of the House Agriculture Committee, and Driskill is now the Majority Floor Leader of the Senate. Tyler Lindholm, who represented northern Weston County and Crook County in the House of Representatives for the majority of the past decade, lost a re-election bid in 2020 but passed a number of important bills and rose to leadership and held the rank of committee chair during his time in the legislature.

“Crook and Weston County had the most effective elected delegation there has been in the state in a long time,” Driskill said this week, basing his assessment on successful bill passage, leadership positions and overall legislative influence.

Hunt agreed, but noted that Weston County residents were only able to reap the benefits of their suddenly expanding influence in the legislature because of the shared commitment to keep the doors of communication open.

“By the sheer effort of our representatives, and through their engagement, it has gone much better than it potentially could have,” Hunt suggested.

“Generally they were always for northeast Wyoming,” Ertman agreed, noting that she felt that the people and communities of Weston County responded to the challenges presented by the new districts by drawing closer together to present a unified voice to their legislators.

“I think [Newcastle is] closer to Upton than we were,” she reasoned. “When we got split, it forced us to come together. We had to because we couldn’t afford to be split.”

James isn’t sold on the idea that the current legislative district boundaries have been turned into a positive for the City of Newcastle, but he acknowledges that city officials have learned to make the best of the reality.

“I can’t say that it has necessarily hurt us, but it hasn’t done us any favors to deal with someone who has no connection to our community,” he suggested. “I think what has happened locally is we’ve done an excellent job with the city organization of surviving and getting by the best we can.”

While there is agreement that present legislative districts may not have hurt Newcastle and Weston County, and may have even benefitted the communities politically over the course of the past decade, there is still a shared belief that things could have been much worse.

“Slightly different circumstances could have significantly changed the situation,” Hunt said, indicating that different election outcomes could have left Newcastle and Weston County with representatives who weren’t as receptive to the concerns of those communities and their residents.

He believes his House district, which stretches 150 miles from Newcastle to Torrington, is largely homogeneous, but admits there are pieces of legislation that force him to make choices between the communities he serves.

“It was certainly helpful to be able to get up there and say the people of my district support this or don’t, and know that was solidly the case of the vast majority of the population, but there are a handful of issues, particularly when it comes to local government funding, where there is a huge clash between communities in a legislative district,” he explained. “There are times when what
is good for Torrington isn’t good for Lusk, or when something good for the Goshen County School District is not good for Weston County School District No. 1.”

 

A desire to be whole

The consequences of legislative redistricting may not have been as dire for Weston County as many feared 10 years ago, but there is still a belief that the county’s lack of a concentrated voting block could result in a complete loss of representation in the state legislature.

“Weston County has the population for one House seat and one Senate seat right now, and they get neither. Your odds of getting a senator in the district the way it lays is somewhere between slim and none,” Driskill said. “If they get the wrong person elected, they could get no representation.”

Although that fear didn’t become a reality in the past decade, officials who lost the redistricting battle the last time believe the potential still exists, and they are hoping for a better outcome this time around.

“We will always want Weston County to be whole, and I think we will fight for that again,” said Ertman, who is now the chair of the county commission, and hopes to use her experience and office to lobby for a better outcome for her constituents this time around.

“I think there is a contingency of us that will push,” she said. “We paid our dues, and we will go in with so much knowledge and so much patience that I think we will be okay.”

Hunt is also in a better position to influence the outcome of the debate than he was a decade ago, and he admitted he will use his new position on the Corporations Committee — which is tasked with designing a redistricting plan in the coming months — to advocate for an emphasis on respecting county boundaries to the greatest extent possible when legislative districts are drawn.

“I think it is every bit as important today, if not more so, to draw those lines along county boundaries as closely as possible,” Hunt said. “We need to do the best we can to ensure every community has a representative that they know is, relatively speaking, right next door.”

“I think it is appropriate to look at the needs of all of the folks, and the county structure is definitely one,” Meier agreed. “It was a political process which could have served the county structure better.”

Driskill still believes that to be true as well, and as the chair of the Corporations Committee, he may be in the best position to help steer the legislature toward a more desirable outcome for Weston County this time around.

“My promise to Weston County for a long time was to try to figure out how to put the county back together for them,” he told the News Letter Journal. “My intent is to keep Weston County whole this time.”

The fact that Weston County’s political leaders and elected representatives are certainly more seasoned this time around should help that cause, but there is also a belief that the legislature will be more inclined to use county boundaries as a guide in drawing legislative district boundaries.

“We can do better this time,” Hunt predicted. “The legislature seems to be more inclined and open to the idea of trying to draw those lines along county boundaries where they can.”

Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, helped guide the debate as the chair of the Corporations Committee 10 years ago. He acknowledged there will be an effort to adhere more to county boundaries when drawing new legislative districts, but cautioned that it will prove difficult in some instances.

“To actually mandate representation on county lines is really difficult to accomplish based on legal constraints,” he said, explaining that the population of each district created by the legislature must be within 5% of the average number of residents between each of the state’s 30 senate districts or 60 house districts.

“That is only a 10% range, and that is very challenging,” Case warned.

 

A statewide solution

Even with those challenges, a solution that keeps Weston County “whole” is possible, but the solution is likely to still require some compromise.

“You have to have a plan that works statewide. You can’t redistrict your corner of the world, and expect the rest of the state to adapt to you,” Driskill cautioned. “You can’t do redistricting that way.”

If there is hope to reunite Weston County’s voting block, however, it will require local officials and their legislative representatives to act quickly. Unlike the last time, those officials believe they are in a better position to ensure Weston County’s concerns are part of the conversation early in the process, and that may make a big difference.

“During the last redistricting, the northeast was the last piece to get put in the puzzle. The east side of the state is where they made all of the corrections at the end of the map, and we were the very last,” Driskill said. “My intent is that this time the northeast is where we start at.”

He pointed out that his co-chair on the Corporations Committee from the House, Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, will be motivated by different concerns, however, and insisted that advocates for a solution to keep Weston County “whole” would have to work with other legislators to address concerns from their constituents as well.

“Almost any way that you cut northeast Wyoming, you have to deal with Sheridan, Johnson, Campbell, Crook and Weston in that corner to make it fall together,” Driskill reasoned.

Although he is no longer the chair, Case is still a member of the Senate Corporations Committee and will be able to offer his knowledge of the laws, constraints and technicalities associated with redistricting to the conversation. He said he thinks there are ways to improve representation within districts, but says the math and the dynamic changes in the state’s population will make it almost impossible to make everyone happy. He suggests that a better way to keep county’s “whole” may be to focus on regions of similarity.

“I do know that it makes some sense to look at population numbers and look at a broad grouping. We could maybe try to look not at county boundaries but at area-of-interest boundaries,” he offered, indicating that he hopes the committee will at least consider a plan that includes multi-member districts. He believes such an approach provides more flexibility by allowing at-large representation within the district’s boundaries.

“That will be considered, I can tell you,” Driskill assured.

 

And so it begins

The release of preliminary figures from the 2020 census on Monday provided the first bit of data that will guide decision-makers, and the conversations around redistricting will start to pick up in the coming weeks. It is unlikely, however, that the committee will tackle the issue in depth until additional numbers are provided, and that will be several weeks from now.

“I don’t know that we will have much discussion about redistricting prior to July,” Hunt said, noting that the committee will probably try to address its other interim topics so they can put all of their energy and attention on redistricting when all of the data becomes available.

“To the greatest extent possible, we hope to focus on redistricting without being distracted by everything else,” Hunt said, indicating that the committee will probably participate in workshops to help its members understand the issue and the legal requirements associated with drawing legislative boundaries.

“It’s nice to have Hans’ knowledge there,” Ertman said when asked about the upcoming debates. The Weston County Commission chairman said she feels more prepared for the battle this time as well. She also admits that the fact that the county did not suffer as much politically as many had feared the last time around will allow her to approach the debate differently.

“I look at things through a bigger scope now instead of a little tunnel. We did just fine, and we do know that, so I just don’t think there’s as much fire in the belly [this time],” she said.

Newcastle’s city clerk/treasurer agreed that local officials have learned that the impact of the legislature’s make-up is not as significant as people thought 10 years ago, and he anticipates that the conversations will be measured and reasonable.

“I can’t see anybody on the council pounding the pulpit over it,” James stated.

At the same time, most Weston County officials have been waiting for a decade to right what they felt was a political wrong, and the commitment is still strong to pursue that goal. There is also a belief that local leaders have done their homework and positioned themselves better this time around, and they are cautiously optimistic heading into the discussions.

“I am looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to the process and looking forward to being on the committee as opposed to being an outsider and a freshman who barely knew what to do,” Hunt said. 

The makeup of the Corporations Committee has also changed considerably from a decade ago. That committee did not have any representatives from Wyoming’s 13 least populated counties, and all 14 of its members hailed from eight of the largest counties in the state.

“That is no longer true. The committee is more balanced than it was 10 years ago,” Hunt said, noting that in addition to he and Driskill, the east side of the state is also represented by voices from nearby Goshen and Converse counties, which share similar concerns. He also expressed confidence in the experience and abilities of the committee members.

“The committee is a good one on the House side. It is a good, thoughtful, well-balanced, senior committee. We have no freshman on Corporations Committee in either house, so everybody is coming in with some knowledge,” he stated.

Data on county and city growth was not part of the report released by the U.S. Census Bureau this week, but the agency has reported that states can expect those numbers by Aug. 16, and that is when the work on redistricting will really begin.

 

(Editor’s Note: Reporting for this piece was made possible through a grant from Wyoming Humanities funded by the “Why it Matters: Civic and Electoral Participation” initiative, administered by the Federation of State Humanities Councils and funded by Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.)

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