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Jay Evensen: Supreme Court gerrymander case could affect Utah

William Marx, points to projected images of the old congressional districts of Pennsylvania on top, and the new re-drawn districts on the bottom, while standing in the classroom where he teaches civics in Pittsburgh on Friday, Nov. 16, 2018. Marx was a pl
William Marx, points to projected images of the old congressional districts of Pennsylvania on top, and the new re-drawn districts on the bottom, while standing in the classroom where he teaches civics in Pittsburgh on Friday, Nov. 16, 2018. Marx was a plaintiff in the Pennsylvania lawsuit that successfully challenged the Republican-drawn congressional maps. Marx said he believes the new district boundaries resulted in "a more fair congressional representation of the will of the people in Pennsylvania."
Keith Srakocic, AP

SALT LAKE CITY — Democrats in the Utah Senate may be the last to know, but when I asked them during an editorial board visit this week whether any legislative attempts are underway to change Utah’s anti-gerrymandering initiative, they said no; at least not that they had heard.

That, of course, is not expected to be the case forever. It’s just that Utah’s Republican lawmakers have until 2021 to make changes to what voters approved. That is the year when 2020 Census figures are available and the state will need to readjust its political boundaries.

In case you didn’t notice, lawmakers had their hands full changing the other two successful initiatives during this year’s session. Given how readily they did that, it’s hard to believe they would leave this one alone.

Gerrymandering is the art of drawing a political district in such a way as to exclude certain people. It’s named for Elbridge Gerry, a Massachusetts governor who signed a bill in 1812 that created a district some people thought looked like a salamander.

Ever since then, this practice has been a point of debate in this country. If you do it to eliminate a racial group, it’s illegal. What we haven’t settled yet is whether it’s OK to do it to keep people of a certain political party from getting elected. That question is currently occupying the U.S. Supreme Court, in two cases that could affect Utah directly.

In North Carolina, Republicans admitted to drawing boundaries that would give the GOP control of nearly all the state’s 13 House districts. In Maryland, Democrats were not shy about wanting to draw a longtime Republican congressman out of a job.

In a hyper-partisan age, there is something here for all people to hate.

But if the court says this type of map drawing is wrong, it would change how Utah carves its boundaries regardless of the initiative. If it rules that political gerrymandering is OK, majority parties from coast to coast will feel more empowered than ever to use the map to protect themselves — except in those places where state laws dictate otherwise.

Which is one reason Democrats see the future of Utah’s anti-gerrymandering initiative, better known as Proposition 4, as of somewhat existential importance. Redraw the state’s political districts differently and more Democrats might be elected, they believe.

Or so the theory goes. Never underestimate how hard it is to be elected as a Democrat in Utah. They hold only six of the 29 Senate seats and 16 of 75 House seats. But the rising generation of voters may give both sides fits sooner or later.

That’s because party labels seem to be increasingly unimportant. Sen. Derek Kitchen, a Democrat who represents one of Salt Lake City’s most liberal districts, said 62 percent of his constituents identify as unaffiliated, not as Democrats.

And of these people, Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, said, “They’re not voting.”

People tend to get involved in politics as idealistic youth, then trail off as life’s realities temper that idealism. The message she wants those people to learn is that “somebody is running your life. You’d better get involved.”

That may happen if lawmakers or the courts keep tinkering with the right to bring citizen initiatives or the way politicians rewrite boundaries. Or maybe all that tinkering will just reinforce the notion that civic involvement doesn’t matter much.

Utah’s initiative would set up a seven-member commission to redraw boundaries, with the idea of preserving communities. That would be a different objective, not necessarily one that is more fair.

Fairness is an elusive goal. Should boundaries divide Republicans and Democrats evenly, creating more competitive races that might get more people involved? Does the idea of preserving community interests simply describe a different way of grouping people by party? Do people tend to settle in neighborhoods to be with like-minded folks?

I’m not sure anyone knows the answer. But the raw power of majority parties using maps to preserve control does not build public confidence.

In Utah, all of this is complicated by other legal challenges to the medical marijuana initiative, or Proposition 2. These go to the heart of the initiative process itself and the Legislature’s ability to immediately alter what voters have approved.

Democrats aren’t the only ones who should pay close attention to all this. The future of democracy, and all citizen involvement in Utah politics, hangs in the balance.