During the 2020 session, the Idaho Legislature passed House Bill 413 which requires cities with more than 100,000 residents to establish districts from which city council members are elected.
Previous to HB 413, most cities in Idaho used what is generally referred to as an “at large” election process for electing city council members. With at-large elections, city residents are able to vote for city council members without any geographic limitations.
Because of how these elections are structured, densely populated and geographically diverse cities are often represented by city council members who all, or mostly, live in only one area of the city. The result is large geographic portions of big cities often go unrepresented by those serving on the city council.
Alternatively, city districting systems offer the same benefits that are garnered under statewide legislative districts: It is a system that ensures that some measure of geographic diversity exists with regard to those persons representing the residents of larger cities. It does this by requiring that cities be separated into districts, in keeping with the number of council members for a given city. Once districts are created, only one council member can serve from each geographic district.
As Idaho grows in population, HB 413 is a big step forward in better ensuring that the needs and desires of a city’s residents are better understood and more fully represented at city hall.
Unfortunately, there are a number of important questions that remain outstanding in the text of HB 413 that need to be answered in order to effectively implement districting: Are existing council members able to finish their current terms if the new district lines put more than one council member in a given district, or will all council members immediately lose their seats because of the districting mandate? Also, must these new districts be in place for the 2021 city council elections, or does HB 413 allow for delay until 2023 in order to allow whoever creates the districts to better utilize the 2020 census results?
Those questions need to be answered this session. Upcoming city council elections are less than a year away.
Regarding the first question, this could be answered by amending HB 413 to expressly phase-in the removal of any council members who might be districted out of their seat: First, those whose terms are up will simply have to abide by new districting rules. Second, those in the middle of their terms when districts are created will be able to finish out their terms. Bringing clarity to council member terms would also ensure proper staggering of seats exists, in keeping with the requirements of Idaho Code 50-701. Lastly, doing so would also remove any possible due process claims of council members who might otherwise stand to lose their seats in the middle of their term.
Regarding the question of timing, putting the Commission for Reapportionment in charge of districting would structurally change the procedural timeline for implementing districting to more readily allow for immediate implementation. Doing so would prevent either delayed implementation, or alternatively, if implementation were undertaken immediately, would prevent having to draw district lines twice, due to the timing matters related to the release of the census numbers on which districts must be based.
Tasking the Commission for Reapportionment with the responsibility of creating districts has a second, and perhaps more important impact on districting. Currently, HB 413 places the responsibility on cities to create their own districts. That might seem to make sense at first. After all, who knows the geography of cities better than cities themselves? That’s precisely the problem, however. HB 413 was passed in order to geographically expand representation on city councils. It follows, then, that some of those representatives will be districted out of their seat, if there is more than one representative residing in a newly created district. Therefore, leaving cities, that is, leaving city councils, the power to create districts as they see fit, is an obvious conflict of interest which risks undermining the entire purpose for which HB 413 was passed.
In order to ensure gerrymandering of districts does not take place, HB 413 should be amended to instead put the Commission for Reapportionment in charge of creating city districts. This non-partisan commission would erase this conflict of interest and would remove the burden from cities of either creating new districting commissions or paying consultants taxpayer dollars for drawing district lines. This would be, as noted above, in addition to better streamlining the timeframe under which city districting can be accomplished.
HB 413 is a big step forward in giving city residents a geographic say in their local city council. However, more needs to be done to make sure it serves the purpose for which it was passed, that it is able to be immediately implemented and to help ensure that needless litigation is avoided regarding the terms of sitting council member seats. One thing is certain: City districting is not an issue the Legislature can afford to ignore this session.