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New district map for Boise City Council elections gets the green light

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Boise elections will look a whole lot different from now on. 

On Tuesday night, Boise City Council unanimously approved a new map splitting the city into six electoral districts for the 2021 election. This map, which was drawn by a consultant specializing in redistricting, is a result of 2020 legislation requiring cities larger than 100,000 to stop electing their councils at large and transition to a district system to represent all sections of the city. 

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Three of the districts will be up for election with two-year terms until the entire council will be up for reelection in 2023. The odd-numbered districts, which include the northwestern section of West Boise, downtown, the Central Bench, the North, and East ends, and Northwest Boise, will be on the ballot this year. If you do not live in one of the districts on the ballot, you will not be allowed to vote for City Council. 

Boise council districts
The City of Boise’s map for the establishment of council districts for the city. Courtesy City of Boise

The 2021 map is drawn with 2010 census data because the 2020 numbers aren’t available yet. When the city goes to have the 2023 election, the map will be redrawn with the more current numbers and all six districts will be up for reelection. This time, the even numbered districts will be up for two year terms to get the city back on a staggered election cycle. 

A lukewarm approval

City Council members approved the map and praised its layout for keeping as many Neighborhood Associations together and keeping the districts compact. Still, it doesn’t mean they were enthused about the project. Most of the council members spoke out against the state legislation requiring the change and were frustrated that the failure of 2021 legislation led to a tight deadline to build a map without public input. 

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“I truly believe our most important tool we have is our ability to vote and for the community to not have the ability to be a part of that discussion is really a bummer,” City Council Member Jimmy Hallyburton said. “It’s terrible that you all didn’t have the ability to decide how you wanted to vote for future city council members and this decision was made for you.”

The City of Boise was a harsh critic of the 2020 legislation, which was brought by Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, at the suggestion of 2019 Boise City Council candidate Karen Danley. After that legislation passed, city officials worked with Danley and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Boise, to write another bill in 2021 that included a transition to districts in 2023 with the latest census data and a set process for districting. 

The bill was sailing to victory with unanimous support until House Republicans moved to amend it in the final days of the session to also change local elections to even-numbered years, along with state and national elections. The bill died in the Senate and it left Boise to rapidly prepare for redistricting for November 2021. 

Not everyone is a fan

Neighborhood activists and others on social media have been critical of the map since it was unveiled last Friday because it meant the districts where all three incumbents live will be up for reelection instead of areas of the city currently without representation. City Council President Elaine Clegg, who spearheaded the process because she is not up for reelection, said legal precedent in this situation favors including the districts where incumbents live because of due process. 

Clegg said Boise was lauded by the consultant because the council requested fair and compact districts, not just ones looking to maximize political gains for the current majority. 

“Districting principles would have allowed us to draw very odd shaped districts, but we made it clear to the consultants that it was our intent to keep geographically contiguous districts to the extent we could,” Clegg said. “It’s not perfect. I know that’s the case, however I also know having worked on this that it’s quite good and in fact the experts told us that they didn’t usually have elected officials or representatives who were willing to draw districts that were simply based on principles and not based on other things, like incumbency.”

There are also several tricky geographical features in Boise making it difficult to draw districts that meet the equal population requirements and keep to compact shapes. This includes the Boise River and Garden City, which protrudes down into city limits and isolates Northwest Boise from most of the rest of the city. This resulted in the less densely populated neighborhood being put in a district with the North End. 

What do the incumbents say?

City Council President Pro Tem Lisa Sanchez, who is up for reelection in November, said she was pleased that her district was selected and she will be allowed to run for reelection. But, she is concerned about the transition to districts because it will make it more difficult for renters and other low-income Boiseans like her to get elected because they need support from all over the city. 

She said her goals on North End haven’t been to represent her neighborhood, but to advocate for renters and other members of Boise’s working poor. 

“There is nothing special about the fact that a number of us are located in a similar part of the city,” Sanchez said. “I do live in the North End, but I’m a renter. It’s a different experience to rent. These days we can certainly see that and I bring that perspective.”

City Council Member TJ Thomson, who lives in the West Boise district up for election, announced months ago he would not seek another term. He echoed other council members’ comments and said the city should work hard to build a public process to draw the 2023 map. 

“While I won’t be here, I trust my colleagues are going to do an outstanding job to integrate the thoughts of all of you to make up all of those new districts to last for another 10 years,” Thomson said. 

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Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at [email protected] or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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