(This is the first of a two-column series on reforming the way in which Wyoming elects legislators.)
It’s one of the great movie lines. Dan Akroyd is the ambulance driver in “The Twilight Zone. “Hey... you wanna see something really scary?”
If you wanna see something really scary, look at the map of Wyoming’s legislative districts. Herman Rorschach might say it resembles a battle between groping salamanders. http://eadiv.state.wy.us/Demog_data/pop2010/SLD_Map.pdf
It wasn’t always this way. Before a 1991 court-ordered reapportionment, county lines actually mattered. Wyoming legislators knew whom they represented. Wyoming voters knew their legislators. That was a time when voters elected legislators to represent the county in which they resided and its people.
Then a “who’s who” of the Democratic Party went to court nobly intent on ending what they called “the entrenched power of Wyoming Republicans.” They won the courtroom battle and lost the political war. Single-member legislative districts substituted “entrenched” Republican power with institutionalized Republican control of the legislature.
The Republican primary is an example of the unintended consequences. A tiny handful of Goshen County voters nominated a Laramie County state senator. Ninety-seven percent of the voters in the Senate District 6 Republican Primary live in Laramie County. Three percent of the voters dictated the outcome. Although David Zwonitzer defeated Anthony Bouchard 1120 votes to 1071 among Laramie County voters, he lost because just 66 Goshen County residents voted for Mr. Bouchard.
You see, county lines matter for everything except choosing legislators. County lines determine tax assessments and collections, who’s elected sheriff, commissioner, county clerk, assessor, and treasurer. But not who represents you in the legislature.
Worse, legislative district designations mean nothing to voters. If a candidate is running in any given district who knows which county or counties that district covers?
For example, Senate District 14 engulfs parts of Lincoln, Sublette, Sweetwater, and Uinta counties. Senate District 20 is carved out of pieces of five counties, Big Horn, Fremont, Hot Springs, Park, and Washakie. Electors from three counties choose a state representative in House Districts 2, 18, and 22. Voters in four counties choose a Representative for HD 28.
Not one member of the legislature actually lives in Niobrara County. No one in the Senate lives in Johnson, Platte, Hot Springs, Sublette, Weston, or Niobrara counties.
It’s called Gerrymandering, i.e. manipulating boundaries to create partisan-advantaged districts. Less-partisan legislatures assign the responsibility of determining legislative districts to a bipartisan commission. In Wyoming it’s done every 10 years by Republicans in the Republican-controlled legislature.
In 2012, Casper Star-Tribune writer Joan Barron described how the process works.
“The new Senate district for Goshen County looks like a finger as it hugs the eastern Wyoming border north then twists to the west at the tip. The main purpose of this truly weird configuration is to take in the population of the medium security prison at Torrington to get enough population for the Senate district for Goshen County.”
State Senator Curt Meier sponsored the amendment. He drew the line for his district around the prison. Disenfranchised inmates suddenly counted as his constituents. By counting people who can’t vote, his seat became safe for another decade.
Senator Maier said, “They’ve been counting people who don’t vote for a long time in legislative districts.” However, many states don’t count prison inmates. Others count them where they lived before incarceration.
Before 1991, voters within a single county elected their legislators. County lines determined whom individual legislators represented. Yes, there was a disparity. On average it took fewer votes to elect a legislator in Niobrara County than in Laramie County.
The courts resolved that problem but opened the door for legislators to create a greater problem. Although there was a pre-1991 mathematical disparity, it gave significance to county lines. People knew their legislators. Legislators represented the people and the interests of a county. Voters knew whom they were voting for and legislators were clear about whom they represented. Now, who knows?
The legislature had other choices. The court said it was permissible for the legislature to give importance to each county having a representative.
Next week’s column discusses potential reforms.