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Proposition 4 backers say independent redistricting commission helps voters pick their politicians

FILE - Citizens cast their ballots at the Salt Lake County Government Center on Election Day Tuesday, June 26, 2018.
FILE - Citizens cast their ballots at the Salt Lake County Government Center on Election Day Tuesday, June 26, 2018.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Jeff Wright, the Republican co-chairman of the group behind Proposition 4, likes to use a simple phrase to explain the need for an independent redistricting commission to draw boundaries for elected officials.

"People get it," Wright recently told the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards. "I think they understand when you talk about politicians picking their voters and voters not picking their politicians."

The ballot initiative known as Better Boundaries is intended to go further, helping to stop gerrymandering, the term describing the actual manipulation of political boundaries to favor one party or candidate over another.

If approved by voters, Proposition 4 will establish a seven-member, appointed commission to recommend how boundaries for congressional, legislative and state school board districts should be adjusted to reflect population shifts.

The adjustments — called redistricting — occur every 10 years, following the completion of the U.S. Census, and are intended to ensure representation remains equal.

Under the proposition, the Utah Legislature would continue to have the final say on redrawing the districts, but there would be new requirements on lawmakers, including minimizing the division of counties, cities and towns.

Lawmakers have produced a number of examples of gerrymandering.

In 2001, the boundaries drawn for the 2nd Congressional District seat held by then-Rep. Jim Matheson, a Democrat, was cited in a Wall Street Journal editorial about the nation's worst gerrymandering and labeled a "scam pulled off by Republicans."

A decade later, the GOP-dominated Legislature again came under scrutiny for dividing Salt Lake County among three of the state's now four congressional districts, ensuring the Democratic influence there would be diluted.

The 2011 debate over whether the state's urban core should be a separate congressional district or paired up with rural areas was framed in food terms, with lawmakers choosing a "pizza slice" over a "donut" with Salt Lake as the hole.

Better Boundaries leaders are careful not to talk about how the districts should have been drawn, although they are willing to criticize how more than a dozen communities, including Holladay, have been sliced up.

The proposition's campaign manager, former Democratic Salt Lake County Council candidate Catherine Kantor, said within Hollady, there are four state House districts, two state Senate districts and two congressional districts.

"That makes no sense for 30,000 people," Kantor said. "When you break up communities like that, you dilute the collective voice of those communities," making it harder for residents to advance issues in the Legislature or Congress.

Wright stressed Proposition 4 backers aren't trying to address past grievances.

"We are dogmatic in saying this is not about an outcome, this is about a process," Wright said. He said it will be up to the independent commission to come up with a proposal for what the districts should look like.

"I'm a Republican. I tend to want to see Republicans win. I want my team to win," he said. "But I want them to do it in a fair and open way. I think the ballot box is where the competition should be, not behind the scenes."

Better Boundaries Democratic co-chairman, former Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, said he saw gerrymandering by both parties when he participated in the 2001 process as House minority leader.

"It was not only fascinating to watch, it was almost embarrassing from a political point of view," Becker said, calling redistricting "the worst, without anything else being close, political experience I've ever been through."

While there is no organized opposition to Proposition 4, Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, said he is speaking for many lawmakers when he describes it as "a cleverly disguised partisan plan" to favor Democrats.

"You look at the people who are really pushing this, who really want to do it, it's Ralph Becker, of course, and a number of other Democrats who want to have more say in the process," Okerlund said.

Becker said the initiative likely won't change the balance of power but will provide a check on what he described as a process that can be corrupted as members of both parties attempt to protect their seats and increase their collective power.

"I understand making that political case because this state is heavily Republican," Becker said. "I can tell you, I had no interest in getting involved in this if this had been about Ds and Rs."

But Okerlund said if Proposition 4 passes, "the Legislature would feel some pressure to do what the people have voted on the ballot and not do what is right, not do what they think is right and that is create fair and balanced districts."

Okerlund, who authored the official argument against the initiative that appears on the Utah Elections Office website, defended the redistricting done by the Legislature, including the decision to split up Salt Lake area into three congressional districts.

That's what Better Boundaries is really about, he said, but giving Salt Lake City a congressional seat would have disenfranchised Republicans and required "some pretty heavy gerrymandering."

What Okerlund said he's learned from the Legislature's redistricting process is that people see everyone else's efforts at drawing maps as gerrymandering, but their own "are absolutely pure and done exactly right."

So, he said, no matter what boundaries are ultimately approved by the Legislature next time, someone will see the final map as unfair whether there's input from an independent commission or not.

Wright said the late President Ronald Reagan's call for independent redistricting commissions to counter gerrymander was highlighted in Better Boundaries' first TV commercial to make it clear the issue crosses party lines.

"This is not a Democratic initiative. This is a bipartisan initiative," he said, noting it would have been impossible without the support of Republicans to collect the 190,000 voter signatures statewide turned in to quality for a place on the ballot.

"This is structural reform that I think is very principled," Wright said. "This creates another check and balance against the abuse of power. So I think this is a very conservative issue."