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Better Boundaries backers bracing for challenge to voter-approved anti-gerrymandering initiative in Utah

A voter drops an election ballot off at the Pitkin County Administration box in Aspen, Colo., on Tuesday Nov. 6, 2018. (Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times via AP)
A voter drops an election ballot off at the Pitkin County Administration box in Aspen, Colo., on Tuesday Nov. 6, 2018. (Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times via AP)

SALT LAKE CITY — Backers of the voter-approved Better Boundaries ballot initiative are already steeling themselves for a challenge that could be years away to their efforts to establish an independent redistricting commission.

"We're going to be vigilant. We're going to be present. And we're prepared through either a campaign or legal means to defend that," said Jeff Wright, the Republican co-chairman of the group behind Proposition 4.

Since the Nov. 8 election, the fundraising arm for the ballot initiative to combat gerrymandering, the Utahns for Responsive Government political issues committee, has continued to collect contributions and spend money on consultants.

The price tag for the campaign through last year was $2 million, money largely raised from out-of-state organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Action Now Initiative started by a Texas-based billionaire couple.

No bills have been filed for the 2019 Legislature dealing with redistricting, the once-a-decade process of redrawing congressional, legislative and state school boundaries to reflect population shifts identified in the national census.

And the Better Boundaries ballot initiative wasn't even discussed during the GOP supermajority's House and Senate closed caucus meetings Tuesday, according to legislative leaders.

But Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said he'll be pushing lawmakers to challenge the constitutionality of Proposition 4 in court, although they may not be ready to take a look at the initiative during the 45-day session that starts Jan. 28.

"It's hard to say. Some probably want changes. Others don't. Some want to wait a year or two. Others probably don't care," Weiler said. "I'd like to see the courts rule on the constitutionality."

Asked if a lawsuit was in the works, he answered, "Not yet. If I get my way though …." Weiler said he wasn't sure how long the state could wait to mount a legal battle.

Sen. Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, who served as Senate majority leader, said lawmakers are still talking about a lawsuit. "There are a number of options that we will be looking at," he said.

And he said there could still be Better Boundaries-related legislation run this session.

"I haven't seen anything yet, but that doesn't mean something isn't out there," said Okerlund, who wrote the argument against Proposition 4 in the official state voter guide that called it "a cleverly disguised power grab" by Democrats.

Wright said the bipartisan Better Boundaries group has always anticipated a postelection fight, even if it doesn't come until the redistricting process starts up again after the 2020 census.

"Everybody who signed up for this knew this was a 2021 campaign. It just didn't end in November. We knew it was going to be this legislative session, next legislative session, potentially a third legislative session," he said, or even a special session.

Last year, after voters approved Proposition 2 legalizing medical marijuana, lawmakers replaced it in a special session called by Gov. Gary Herbert with compromise legislation.

Wright said he and the group's Democratic co-chairman, former Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, are "prepared to be around a long time to make sure we see this through."

Proposition 4 was narrowly approved by Utah voters, 50.3 percent to 49.7 percent. It creates an independent commission charged with making redistricting recommendations to the Legislature, which continues to have the final say.

Utah has been held up as one of the nation's worst examples of gerrymandering by the Wall Street Journal for the boundaries drawn in 2001 for the 2nd Congressional District seat held then by Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson.

When Utah added a fourth seat in Congress after the 2010 census, the division of Salt Lake County into three districts also raised concerns about diluting the state's center of Democratic influence.

The new, seven-member appointed redistricting commission would be able to exert political pressure on the process to avoid gerrymandering, the manipulation of political boundaries to favor one candidate or party over another.

In addition to the commission, the initiative also imposes new requirements on the Legislature's own redistricting plan, including that the division of counties, cities and towns be minimized.

It will be "a difficult proposition" for lawmakers to take on the new law, Wright said.

"If they proceed with trying to change the law, they're fighting for gerrymandering," he said. "To say, 'We like gerrymandering, we're going to change the will of the people,' that's very unpopular."