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Opinion: Why I believe the Legislature is best suited to draw political maps

Lawmakers have fulfilled their constitutional responsibility to adopt maps that lay a solid foundation for Utah elections over the next decade

Utahns gather to express their opinions on redistricting maps during a Legislative Redistricting Committee hearing.
Utahns gather to express their opinions on redistricting maps during a Legislative Redistricting Committee hearing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 8, 2021.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

In 1963, Chief Justice Earl Warren said “The concept of political equality ... can mean only one thing — one person, one vote.” Over the past several months, the Legislature set out to draw maps that divide the state into electoral districts that reflect the principle of one person, one vote.

We were not alone in this. Widely available map-drawing software enabled many in the state to try their own hand at redistricting, and anyone who attempted to draw a map quickly learned one thing — there are thousands of ways to divide the state.

With so many options, two important questions arise.

First, “Who should decide which boundaries to use?” Article IX of the Utah Constitution answers that question when it says “the Legislature shall divide the state into congressional, legislative, and other districts.”

Why would the founders of our state put this responsibility on the Legislature? I believe it is because the Legislature is best positioned to represent the will of the people of the entire state. In the 2020 election, over 1 million Utahns, or 72% of voters, voted for the current members of the Utah House. Lawmakers have been elected to represent their constituents’ needs, concerns and wishes on Capitol Hill.

Second, “How should boundaries be decided?”

The process for determining boundaries looked a bit different this year. When the U.S. Census released its population data in August, two groups set out to create new congressional, legislative and school board districts for Utah. With the same goal in mind, the Legislative Redistricting Committee (LRC) and the Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC) spent countless hours visiting every corner of the state, listening to public feedback and drawing maps.

The IRC, created by a ballot measure that passed by the narrowest of margins, was new to the redistricting process this year. The IRC was tasked by the voters to recommend redistricting maps to the Legislature. Because the ballot measure included several provisions that potentially violated the Utah Constitution, a compromise was reached that adjusted some provisions of the ballot measure but kept the redistricting commission as a recommending body.

This fall, the IRC developed its maps and presented its proposals to the Legislature. Some argue that in addition to the actual language of the law that requires the Legislature to consider the IRC maps, the measure’s passage by fewer than 7,000 votes implies that the Legislature must also adopt them. We, as a Legislature, appreciate the hard work of the IRC, and recognize that they were asked to take on a difficult task, but we also take seriously the responsibility placed upon us by the Constitution and the millions of Utahns who elected us to look critically at the IRC maps and decide whether they are best for our state.

It is important to note that while the commission members are all distinguished, capable and honorable citizens of our state, they are also an unelected, seven-person body with political biases and preferences. As the Legislature, we obviously have our own biases and preferences, but those preferences are checked by the voters every two years.

Last week, the Legislative Redistricting Committee compared the IRC maps to the maps the Legislature developed after traveling the state and listening to many hours of public input.

While both the IRC and LRC maps provided districts meeting the one person, one vote standard, the Legislature found that the IRC maps fell short on some key principles.

The first is including both urban and rural interests in our congressional districts, a principle that has served Utah well for decades. We are not rural Utah vs. urban Utah. We are one Utah. It is important to have united voices representing all our state’s interests in Washington, D.C.

The second is preserving the core of prior districts to ensure that voters maintain a continuity of representation. While population shifts lead to combining some sitting legislators, of both parties, or state school board members into one district, doing so means voters no longer have the option to be represented by the legislator they elected. This is not something to be taken lightly. The IRC explicitly ignored this principle, effectively removing over a dozen duly elected representatives from office with the stroke of a map-drawing pen.

The bottom line is — redistricting is difficult. The thousands of available options inevitably pit competing ideas and preferences against each other. While some may disagree with the end result, the Legislature has fulfilled its constitutional responsibility to adopt maps that lay a solid foundation for our elections over the next decade — elections that will uphold the principle of one person, one vote.

Brad Wilson is the speaker of the Utah House of Representatives. He represents District 15 in Davis County.