Gerrymandering, a troubling distortion of American democracy, is getting new scrutiny, and this time with a twist. Courts have begun to rule that parties cannot draw political boundaries in ways that discriminate by party affiliation. The U.S. Supreme Court has accepted two such cases, from Maryland and Wisconsin. Its rulings could have far-reaching effects.
Those effects might even reach Utah, where Democrats have complained of Republicans redrawing districts in the past in an effort to keep the Democrats from holding onto a seat in Congress. That issue could become relevant again after the 2020 Census, when Utah’s strong growth rate might result in a fifth congressional seat.
Portions of Salt Lake County, containing the state’s highest concentration of Democratic voters, have been put into three of the state’s four districts. The ideological argument for this is that the state benefits from having representatives who must be attuned to both rural and urban issues. The practical effect, however, is to make it easier for Republicans to win.
While the courts consider this issue, petitions are circulating in Utah for an initiative that would allow Utahns to vote on whether an independent commission should be established to draw boundaries in the future.
Organized by a group called Better Boundaries, the initiative drive would establish a process for appointing a bipartisan commission that draws boundaries a step removed from political intervention. We have long supported the concept of vesting the important work of adjusting boundaries in a commission with members nominated by both parties. That would lead to more competitive races and greater voter interest.
In the past, courts have been especially critical of gerrymandering that has kept large concentrations of minorities from political representation. The idea of gerrymandering by political party, however, has not gained traction until now.
If the Supreme Court decides this is a legitimate inhibitor to representative government, Utah should be ready to respond with a plan to fairly redraw its boundaries. Lawmakers should consider getting ahead of the initiative process by drafting an independent redistricting process on their own.
Ideally, democracy should be a system in which voters choose their representatives, not one in which representatives choose their voters. However, Utah and many other states have long held to the notion that redrawing boundaries is one of the spoils of political victory.
The result of this method has been a reduction in meaningful races nationwide. Less than 10 percent of House races in 2016 were considered competitive. As USA Today reported during the last election, many House districts are drawn such that incumbents face little real competition. In Utah, none of the four congressional races in 2016 was close.
Politics in Utah is dominated by the Republican Party. That is the result of legitimate party preference by a majority of eligible voters. Naturally, it results in Republicans holding many political offices. But the state is growing quickly, and it must take care to ensure its people feel enfranchised. The spoils system should belong to a bygone era.