The hand of the LORD was on me, and he brought me out and set me in the middle of a valley;
it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel 37 1-3
I see legislative leaders are trying to make certain reapportionment doesn’t cost any of them a lifetime job in the legislature. Instead, they should ask how the legislature became a valley floor filled with dry bones. Reapportionment could be a needed tool for rejuvenation, if they’d allow for that.
I was first elected to the Wyoming legislature in 1970. There was no Legislative Service Office, no interim committees, and the legislature met for only 40 days and nights every two years. Plain old citizens could take the time to serve. That was the early 1970’s. In the intervening years, much has changed, some for the better and some not.
In those days, there was an understanding that once a member became speaker of the house or president of the senate, she or he would step aside so that others could step up. That custom has been tossed and some members have virtual lifetime appointments. Back then we were proud to be called “a citizen legislature” meaning the structure allowed anyone to serve. Today the Wyoming legislature has become more exclusive. Only a few can participate. First, the legislature now has more so-called “select committees” than standing committees. Apparently distrustful of the committee system, they create select committees so that only select members are allowed to make select decisions. As a result, serving in the legislature occupies considerable time commitments rendering it more than a part time job.
The people of Wyoming once attempted to make those bones live again by enacting term limits but legislators went to the courts for relief from the vote of the people.
The most damaging “reform” of all is one that was intended to give citizens better representation. In 1991, a well intentioned group of Wyoming advocates went to the US Supreme Court returning with an order requiring the legislature to reapportion itself into single member districts. The idea that people living in south Cheyenne could not be represented by someone living in north Cheyenne never made sense to me but a 1963 Supreme Court decision had dictated “one person-one vote” should be applied to Wyoming.
Twenty years later, the time has come to ask whether this change made our system better or worse. There is evidence it made the system less open, less accessible and increasingly irrelevant. The Supreme Court gave us a system that institutionalized a one party majority under which most citizens (1) don’t have any idea who their legislator is; and (2) don’t care enough to run themselves.
The huge one-Party majority in the legislature is not so much about political ideology as it is about the structure incumbents created to protect themselves from competition. The proof is in the extraordinarily high numbers of those incumbents who are never opposed at the ballot box.
Nationwide, the last election saw 28% of all state senate winners unopposed. In Wyoming it was 60%. On the house side, a third of all members nationwide won without an opponent. In Wyoming it was almost 70%.
It’s not by accident that those statistics define the legislature. It’s by design, the design created by incumbents who like it that way. That’s not the sign of a healthy democracy and reapportionment is a once in a decade opportunity to think about how to open the system to fresh voices and a healthy turnover of members and ideas. Those dry bones could live again but only if the old dry bones choose.