When Idaho’s “citizen” reapportionment panel deadlocked recently everyone in the state looked to the Big Man on the second floor of the state capitol building for guidance. And for good reason. Ben Ysursa has forgotten more about Idaho’s election process than most of us could ever hope to know. So here’s a novel idea that will never happen, but should – let Ben draw the lines. I apologize in advance to my friend, Ysursa, but stay with me.
Rather than Ysursa’s steady and experienced hand on the redistricting tiller, we’ll now have a new reapportionment panel in place next week – three partisan Democrats and a trio of partisan Republicans – trying and do what the first gang of six failed to do in 90 days of expensive trying. In theory the equally divided “citizens” committee seems like a sensible solution to the games legislators historically play when it comes time, as it does every ten years, to decide the shape of the state’s legislative and Congressional boundaries. The sensible idea goes south, however, because both parties bring their partisan agendas to the process and common sense is handed a spoiled ballot. To those who will be quick to say, “but the citizen panel worked last time,” I say it worked only because one member – to perhaps his eternal regret – voted with the other side. The partisan political powers to be seemed determined to not have that happen again.
I know, I know, drawing legislative and Congressional boundaries may be the single most partisan thing done in our politics. Careers are made or ended based on these geographic and population decisions. All the more reason to let a pro call the shots. Suppose for a minute that the Commissioner of Baseball decided that we need to tweak the rules of the great game. Would he assign the job to a group of amateur fans, three Red Sox partisans and three Yankee fanatics? Of course not. Even Bud Selig would be smart enough to call in a Joe Torre or Frank Robinson; an expert who knows and loves the game, but is wise enough not to play games with the rules.
The Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call did a story last week detailing how difficult the reapportionment job is in a smaller states, like Idaho. The biggest states have finished the job, while Maine (and Idaho) seem hopeless caught in the political weeds. Idaho reapportioners wandered into the weeds when Republicans panel members pushed an agenda to create a legislature even more conservative than the current one and Democrats saw the process as offering a small sliver of opportunity to get the party back to relevance. Next stop: deadlock.
Of course, my solution – let Ben do it – will pass muster with no one, including most likely Ben. What sane person would want this job? But consider this: Ysursa has been in the Secretary of State’s office since just after statehood, or at least it seems so. Ben first toiled as long-time Secretary of State Pete Cenarrusa’s chief deputy and he has held the top job himself since 2002. Ben has twice been overwhelmingly re-elected with bi-partisan support. You would be hard pressed to find a loyal Republican, as Ysursa proudly is, who is seen by partisans of every stripe as both a professional and completely fair minded. I can think of no person in either party who would approach the partisan job of reapportionment with more dispassion and with a long view as to what is in the best interest of Idaho. He could have the lines drawn by tomorrow afternoon and I’d bet a ticket to a Red Sox – Yankee playoff game that Ben’s plan would pass Constitutional muster if, as always seems likely, the ultimate plan goes before a judge.
Somethings are too important to be left to politicians and, with all due respect to the six people who tried to write a plan, some things are too important to be left to amateurs. The lines defining Idaho’s legislative and Congressional districts should be drawn based, number one, on common sense as defined by population, communities of interest, geography and history. If six truly independent people brought that notion to the Idaho process they could write the plan in a week. Partisan considerations make that impossible.
Think that letting Ben do this job is crazy? Maybe, but let’s see where we are in six weeks or so.