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Serving The Wide Open Spaces

By David Harrison, STATELINE

Since he was first elected to the Arizona state Senate eight years ago, Manny Alvarez has burned through four cars at the rate of 40,000 miles a year. Alvarez, a Democrat from the southeastern tip of the state, represents the 25th district, an area that snakes along the Mexican border from the New Mexico line to Yuma County, more than 300 miles to the west.

“To be honest with you, it stinks,” he says. “It’s very, very hard but I still manage to do it.”

If recent census figures are any indication, Alvarez and other rural lawmakers have extra reason to be concerned in the coming decade. Not only are their numbers declining, but in many cases their districts are likely to become so geographically huge that representing constituents could become a trial of endurance. Census data released last week show that the recession has not stopped a century-long movement of people out of rural areas and into cities and suburbs, a trend that will have significant impact in next year’s redistricting debates.

As the U.S. population has grown, all legislators, urban, suburban and rural, are going to represent more people. That will affect everything from the cost of campaigns to legislators’ workloads and travel time.

But it is the rural legislators, elected from communities that are stagnant or shrinking, who are really going to get socked. Between 2006 and 2009, metropolitan areas added about 8 million people, which accounts for all the increase in the country’s population during that time, according to the census figures. The number of people who live in principal cities increased by about 5.3 million, while the number of suburban residents increased by about 2.7 million. The population outside metropolitan areas stayed level. In 2009, slightly more than half the country’s population lived in suburbs and another third lived in cities.

Those figures are rough estimates, since they are calculated from surveys sent to a sample of the population. A more complete picture of the nation’s population patterns won’t be available until next spring, when full results from the decennial census are released. Still, the picture from the census is unlikely to look very different from the estimates. The makeup of state legislatures will have to change to reflect the country’s increasingly urban and suburban population. “The rural districts get geographically bigger as more and more population has to be absorbed in the urban and suburban districts,” says Gary Moncrief, a political scientist at Boise State University in Idaho.

Right now, California lawmakers have the most constituents per district. On average, a California state Senator represents more than 900,000 people and an Assembly member represents 500,000, according to 2008 data from the National Conference of State Legislatures. A member of the 400-person New Hampshire House of Representatives, by contrast, represents barely more than 3,000. But even within individual states, population shifts in this decade have required some lawmakers to represent far more constituents than their counterparts.

In Arizona, Alvarez, who is battling for reelection this year, is concerned that his district will get even larger. The last time Arizona redrew its legislative boundaries, in 2001, the state’s Independent Redistricting Commission did not take geography into account, says Steven Lynn, the independent chairman of the bipartisan group that drew the lines a decade ago. Members focused instead on population and other criteria such as compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act. A new commission will be appointed next year, made up of two Democrats, two Republicans and one independent chairman.

The districts to emerge out of the 2010 census could conceivably follow a hub-and-spoke pattern, drawing population from the Phoenix and Tucson areas to keep down the size of rural districts. But most experts think the mapmakers will follow the pattern of 2000, creating ever more vast rural districts without urban or suburban constituents. That would mean that Alvarez or his successor would need a steady supply of new vehicles.

Alaska is already anticipating this problem. A constitutional amendment on next month’s ballot will ask voters to increase the size of the state legislature after redistricting, adding two state senators and four House members. Supporters of the measure, especially rural lawmakers, say an increased number of districts will allow more attentive representation for far-flung and isolated communities. As things stand now, one Senate district in Alaska covers half the state’s land area and stretches almost 1,000 miles north to south.

But convincing voters that they need more politicians could be a difficult sell in this year of Tea Party protests and anti-incumbent fervor. Some states, such as Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Illinois, have moved in the opposite direction in recent years and shrunk their legislatures.

With more people living in metropolitan areas, the legislatures may be spending more time on issues of concern to suburban residents. That’s likely to be the case in Idaho, where suburban Boise has exploded in population in recent years. Idaho lawmakers will focus much of their attention on transportation funding, a burning question for Boise-area residents.

But having more legislators from metropolitan areas doesn’t necessarily mean the interests of people living in those areas will be better represented, warns Robert Lang, a sociologist at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. “Metropolitan areas are political weaklings,” he says. “They just don’t usually have coalitions that stand up for their interests.”

–Contact David Harrison at dharrison@pewtrusts.org

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