Wyoming’s tense redistricting process will come down to the wire this week as lawmakers who believe 2020 Census data warrants changes in the legislative maps will face those who want to stay closer to the lines as currently drawn.
The Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Corporations, Elections, and Political Subdivisions Committee will meet Wednesday in Casper to consider plans for redrawing the state’s legislative districts. Subsequent meetings are expected to smooth out discrepancies in the committee’s favored plan before the full Legislature considers it in February.
The primary conflict stems from differing approaches — one that draws new legislative maps according to population growth mainly in more urban areas, and one that seeks to ensure more rural and remote areas with declining populations maintain their political power in Cheyenne.
The process thus far has woven a tangled web of interests trying to find compromise, but the urban-rural divide represents a significant rift in approaches. While some parts of Wyoming, such as Teton, Lincoln and Laramie counties, saw growth since the 2010 census, 14 of the state’s 23 counties saw populations decline. As was seen nationwide, Wyoming experienced growth in more populous areas between 2010 and 2020 while smaller, more rural areas saw populations decline, according to the state’s Economic Analysis Division.
But how those changes translate into new district lines is dividing lawmakers.
House Corporations Chairman Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne) said the population shifts warrant disrupting legislative districts. That could include taking a House seat out of the state’s rural western region and moving it to southeast Wyoming, shifting more representation to the growing urban area.
“In my mind we’ve got to follow the numbers and not be worried about disruptions,” Zwonitzer said.
House Majority Floor Leader Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale), however, told WyoFile the notion of redrawing districts has led to concern for many in rural Wyoming.
“Even though we’re declining in population in rural Wyoming, I think there’s a reluctance to give up some of that power,” Sommers said. “The tension’s not so much between Democrats and Republicans as it is between regions of the state, or between urban and rural.”
The 2020 Census tallied Wyoming’s population at 576,851. Divide that figure by 60 (for 60 House seats) and the math shows that 9,614 people should comprise a Wyoming House district. Federal court decisions maintain that a district’s population should not deviate more than 5% from that figure to minimize the difference between the largest and smallest districts.
The proposal that would shift a House seat out of rural Wyoming and into southeast Wyoming’s more populous region reflects the “one person, one vote” principle outlined in the U.S. Constitution, Zwonitzer said. He acknowledges it would result in “disruption” because it would redraw lines, having a ripple effect on districts throughout the state. The plan would reconfigure the state’s Senate nesting, which puts two House districts in each Senate seat. That means a majority of senators would likely face difficult elections in 2022 and 2024.
“You basically have to do re-nesting for multiple senators, which means senators lose half of their current districts,” Zwonitzer said. “It’s pretty traumatic when you’re asking senators to give up half their constituents to another district.”
Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper) interprets the data differently. He believes that plan would upend the guiding principle of maintaining 60 House members and 30 senators in the Wyoming Legislature.
The court’s guiding principles do not warrant the kind of disruptions Zwonitzer is calling for, Scott said.
He called the approach “a formula for blowing up the size of the Legislature indefinitely.”
Ultimately, Scott said those advocating for moving a House seat to southeast Wyoming’s more populous region are asking for something to which they are not entitled. Zwonitzer disagrees, saying he is simply following the guidelines in crafting a plan that gives equal representation to Wyoming voters.
Because of COVID-19-related complications, the 2020 Census data came to Wyoming lawmakers late, meaning time has not been a luxury lawmakers can afford, Sommers said. Alternative plan proposals have further slowed the process.
Representatives from Weston County, for example, have been lobbying to keep their county whole. House Speaker Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) has been advocating for Campbell County. Sommers has been presenting plans that advance the interests of Sublette County — which has experienced the state’s most significant population decline.
But there’s no way, Scott said, to come up with a statewide plan without compromise.
One of the remaining challenges is in the Bighorn Basin, which saw populations decline. If lawmakers don’t redistrict there, the region will be overrepresented.
House Minority Leader Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie) said she was concerned about allowing one region to be overrepresented because it would mean others are underrepresented. Senate Vice President Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) echoed that concern, telling the Legislature’s Management Council on Jan. 6 that it doesn’t make sense to allow for an exception in one region and not in others.
Whatever proposal the committee advances to the full Legislature, it is likely to meet ample debate, amendments and alternative proposals making redistricting a time- and energy-consuming topic of the 2022 budget session. Scott and others have indicated they will bring bills during the session that propose their own visions for how to draw Wyoming’s district lines.