January 3, 2022 |
Carbon County’s small towns and low population are good things in many ways. They’re also a political liability. Other parts of the state grew over the last decade while the population here declines. Now, lawmakers from bigger counties are looking to eliminate House District 47 and Senate District 11. The political math adds up to one thing: The rural areas of Carbon and Sweetwater Counties could lose effective representation in the legislature.
The Joint Corporations Committee spent last year redrawing new House and Senate districts in light of the 2020 census. The committee voted last week to eliminate House District 47 and shift the seat to Laramie County, which saw a population increase over the last decade — although not quite enough growth to warrant more than half a seat in the legislature.
Suspicions about the politics motivating some on the committee, especially the co-chairs, erupted several times in December. Last week, after an alternative plan to keep House District 47 intact failed on an 8-6 vote, Senator Larry Hicks of Baggs put into words the frustration that many on and off the committee feel about how the process is going so far.
Hicks added that the intent of the Corporations Committee appears to be whatever is best for the members.
The state senator from Baggs has reason to be concerned. The seat he has held since 2001 is on the chopping block. Under one plan, Senate District 11, which includes the rural areas of the county as well as Rawlins, would merge with Sweetwater County, including Green River. In committee discussions about redistricting, Carbon County and Sweetwater County are referred to as Region 9. Lumping the two counties together without regard to the differences between a small town like Saratoga and a city like Green River could be the outcome of the so-called Zwonitzer plan, which would dissolve House District 47.
Senator Hicks is not the only one frustrated. Committee member Senator Charles Scott of Casper, who has been through five redistricting efforts, said none of the plans produced so far are ready for prime time. Representative Dan Zwonitser of Cheyenne, one of committee’s co-chairs, has been the primary advocates for moving the seat from House District 47 to create an 11th seat for Laramie County, even though the growth there doesn’t a warrant a full new seat.
Zwonitzer added that Laramie County is growing faster than any other area of the state. Although the census bears that out, Laramie County’s population still falls short of the number needed to trigger an automatic 11th seat. Under the math used by LSO to guide the process, the ideal house district encompasses 10,301 residents. Laramie County’s population is 100,512 — not enough trigger an 11th seat. Zwonitzer proposed including a portion of Goshen County until his county hits the needed headcount. Senator Charles Scott of Natrona County objected.
Scott said Zwonitzer’s plan — mixing and matching populations from counties north and west of Cheyenne — also would upset the balance in Senate districts, perhaps forcing every senate seat into re-election this year. The plan would never pass the senate, Scott said, because it would turn the upper chamber into a free for all. With Zwonitzer unwilling to compromise, Senator Scott had heard enough at the end of two days of meetings in early December.
Senator Scott threatened to introduce his own redistricting plan during the budget session. Other plans are likely to be submitted, as well. After months of meetings to develop one cohesive plan for introduction during the 20-day session that begins on February 4th, committee members are still at without a plan at deep odds over how to draw the maps in some areas of the state. The lack of progress in developing a single, workable plan drew a hard warning last week from House Speaker Eric Barlow.
The politics are not new. They’re as old as the “Old” West. The divide between small, sparsely populated areas of Wyoming and its urban centers is a running theme in Wyoming. It even resulted in war named after the county involved. The armed invasion of northern Wyoming by wealthy cattlemen and their hired hands in 1892 was about land, livestock, homesteading and ultimately, money Today’s fight is over representation in the legislature. The pressing question: Can lawmakers develop a redistricting plan that is solid enough to withstand any legal challenge? Or a veto from the governor? History says “maybe not.”
A 1965 Wyoming court case over districting landed us where we are now. The ranching and agriculture industry held vast influence in the state Legislature. The power was baked into the State Constitution. Ratified in 1890, Article 3, Section 3 declares that that each county is a senate district with one senator. That year — 1890 — Wyoming’s total population that year was 62,000, and the calculation probably made sense. By 1965, Natrona and Laramie County had been allowed two senators each, but the big differences in populations meant a vote cast in the legislature by a senator from Carbon or Platte County was worth five times as much as a vote cast by a senator from Laramie or Natrona.
The result was a rich historical irony. In the hometown of the Cattleman’s Club, where land barons had launched their invasion of Johnson County two years after the constitution was ratified, the political tables had turned. The power now was held outside Cheyenne. In 1965, with national attention fixed on voting rights, six residents of Cheyenne and Casper sued Thyra Thompson, the Secretary of State, from proceeding with the primary and general elections of 1964 under the equal protection law. They won.
Three months after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law, the U.S District Court of Wyoming declared Section 3 Article 3 unlawful and an “invidious discrimination” because of its disregard of the one-man-one-vote guarantee. “Invidious” means likely to arouse resentment or anger.
The case of Schaefer versus Thompson changed Wyoming election laws and political power by laying the rules for a district system based on population. The court ruling included a formula for determining the ideal population size for house and senate districts and a ratio of house and senate seats.
There’s been trouble ever since. In the early 1990s Governor Mike Sullivan vetoed a plan that included multi-member districts. For instance Carbon County was a single district with two house seat. Governor Sullivan forced the single-member district that remains in place. In 2000, the redistricting plan became law without the governor’s signature, but was not challenged in the courts. The 2010 districting plan was signed into law by Governor Matt Mead. The plan survived a court challenge — Hunzie versus Maxifield — in which the plaintiffs observed that the members of the Corporations Committee, which drew it up, were all from larger counties.
At the root of all the disputes is a district system which can pit short-term population changes against cultural heritage, simple mathematics against effective representation, political science versus the practical conditions of long distances occasionally dotted with isolated ranching communities separated by mountain passes during harsh winters.
This year is no different. This time Carbon County stands to lose. Representative Sommers, whose plan to keep House District 47 was defeated, told the committee that it has work to do.
While Sommers plan was defeated last week, it’s certainly not dead. In part two of our two-part story on redistricting, we’ll delve deeper into how the Zwonitzer plan would affect Carbon County, and why it’s receiving support from Albany County.