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Utah lawmakers released their proposed redistricting maps. Accusations of gerrymandering swiftly followed

SHARE Utah lawmakers released their proposed redistricting maps. Accusations of gerrymandering swiftly followed
The Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City.

The Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City is pictured on Friday, March 5, 2021, the final day of the Utah Legislature’s 2021 general session.

Annie Barker, Deseret News

Utahns late Friday night got their first glimpse of a set of proposed maps that the Utah Legislature is slated to vote on next week in a special session to determine the boundaries of Utah’s political districts for the next decade.

The Republican-controlled Legislative Redistricting Committee released the maps around 10 p.m. Friday night, giving the public roughly three days — mostly over a weekend — to study the maps before the Utah Legislature convenes in a special session on Tuesday. A public hearing is set for Monday.

Legislators’ proposal for the most high-profile congressional map includes a new split down the east side of the Democratic stronghold of Utah’s capital, Salt Lake City. If lawmakers approve the proposed map, Salt Lake County will be split into four congressional districts.

The public can view and comment on the proposed congressional map — along with proposed state House and Senate districts and school district maps — on the Legislative Redistricting Committee’s website.

The proposed congressional map would also split the Salt Lake County areas of Sugar House, Millcreek, Murray and Holladay into four different congressional districts. Burgeoning democratic areas including Sandy and Draper would be grouped into the same congressional district as conservative strongholds including Provo and Orem.

The legislative map proposals do not mirror the maps proposed by a separate body, the Utah Independent Redistricting Commission, which presented its recommendations Monday after spending hundreds of hours traveling the state to take Utahns’ input and live streaming their map drawing on YouTube.

While presenting its maps to legislators, members of the independent commission sought to show lawmakers how their maps were drawn in a fair, data-based process that was insulated from political bias.

But Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, one of the Legislative Redistricting Committee’s chairmen, earlier this week questioned whether the commission was actually unbiased when it drew its maps. He asserted “no one is immune” to political bias whenever “we put a line on a map.”

“After listening to Utahns and touring the state, Rep. (Paul) Ray and I created maps that we believe incorporate the interests of all Utahns,” Sandall said in a prepared statement issued late Friday along with the maps. “The congressional map we propose has all four delegates representing both urban and rural parts of the state. Rural Utah is the reason there is food, water and energy in urban areas of the state. We are one Utah, and believe both urban and rural interests should be represented in Washington, D.C. by the entire federal delegation.”

Ray, R-Clearfield, the committee’s House chairman, said in a prepared statement the Legislature “has the constitutional responsibility to divide the state into electoral districts.”

“Sen. Sandall and I have worked tirelessly to come up with boundaries that best represent the diverse interests of the people we were elected to represent,” Ray said. “I am grateful for the feedback we received directly from the local communities and look forward to discussing our maps with the committee and full Legislature.”

Soon after the legislative map proposals were released, the first set of public comments to appear on the Legislative Redistricting Committee’s website expressed disappointment that lawmakers had not taken the independent commission’s recommendations.

“The voters asked for nonpartisan redistricting,” one of the first public commenters, Michael Witting, posted. “This is a blatant gerrymander with SL County divided between all four districts. Please use the IRC maps.”

Another commenter, Charles Bonkowsky, posted a comment in east-side Salt Lake City, an area that would be divided into two congressional districts.

“I would be in a different congressional district than my neighbors one block over,” Bonkowsky posted. “Splitting the city into two districts and the county into four districts is absolutely unacceptable for ensuring proper representation at the federal level. The maps created by the independent commission do a much better job at keeping communities together.”

By Saturday morning, more than a dozen online comments had been posted on the Legislative Redistricting Committee’s proposed congressional map, all critical, and many calling it a clear example of gerrymandering.

“I am a moderate GOP voter that resides in Utah County and I find this map to be what many would consider a gerrymander,” commenter Ryan King posted. “I am so sick and tired of the partisan bickering at the national level, and one of the big contributing factors to that is the idea of ‘safe’ districts for one party. I want to see more districts that don’t simply split up cities and communities in order to draw maps that favor one political party.”

The independent redistricting committee was created after Utah voters in 2018 narrowly approved a ballot initiative calling for an independent redistricting commission to draw new maps that will be used to help decide who voters can vote for to represent their area’s interests.

The aim of the commission was to ensure Utah’s next set of political boundaries would be decided regardless of politics and without partisan gerrymandering. But the Republican majority of the Utah Legislature, expressing concern that the commission would usurp the Legislature’s constitutional duty to oversee redistricting, stepped in.

In 2020, the Legislature struck a deal with Better Boundaries backers, designating the Utah Independent Redistricting Commission as only an adviser to state lawmakers, who will ultimately decide what maps get approved.

Last month, only a week away from the independent commission’s deadline to submit its maps to the Utah Legislature, former Congressman Rob Bishop abruptly resigned from the independent redistricting commission, complaining the commission was unfairly weighted to favor urban over rural interest.

Days after Bishop’s resignation, House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, acknowledged the “ink is still wet” on the independent commission’s recommended maps and it was too soon to say whether the Legislative Redistricting Commission would accept the map proposals, but he suggested the Utah Legislature would possibly reevaluate the independent commission and its process altogether.

The speaker said Bishop’s resignation “shines a bright light on the fact that this maybe isn’t working the way that it was envisioned to.”

“And so, we may need to go back to the drawing board and determine whether this process makes sense and, if it does, what does that look like?” Wilson told reporters last week.

The speaker’s comments lead to questions of whether the Utah Legislature will act to dismantle the independent commission altogether. In the legislative committee’s hearing Monday, Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, what scenario would be most “offensive” to the independent redistricting commission.

The independent commission’s chairman, Rex Facer said the “thing that would be most offensive is if the commission were never to resurface again.”