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Opinion: Honor the will of the people, lawmakers

The Independent Redistricting Commission built trust by being open, transparent and responsive. Now, legislators have a choice to make.

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Lawmakers and members of Better Boundaries announce an agreement on political redistricting in 2020.

House Minority Whip Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, is joined by fellow legislators and representatives from Better Boundaries where a deal over Proposition 4 was announced during a press conference in the Gold Room at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020. The voter-approved citizens initiative created an independent redistricting commission to recommend new legislative, congressional and State School Board boundaries the census every decade.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

The legislative Redistricting Committee recently finished a tour of Utah, seeking public input for redistricting. When previous legislatures toured Utah in 2011 for redistricting, and in 2019 for tax reform, some lawmakers acted as if the public meetings were merely a gauntlet of whips to be run. If they could just withstand the lashes from the public during committee meetings, then they could do as they wished afterward. 

But we the people of Utah knew they weren’t listening or representing us fairly then. We said no, that’s not the way to make law that represents us fairly. We passed a proposition to create an independent redistricting commission.  

We ran a referendum to repeal the ill-conceived tax reform. The Legislature responded by passing laws making it harder to run referenda. They responded by negotiating a compromised independent commission law. They called the compromise an example of good legislation. Can we trust them to stand by their word and respect the commission recommendations? 

The Independent Redistricting Commission has demonstrated how to effectively collaborate with the people of Utah. They made it easy for Utahns to talk with them. They made adjustments to maps based on public feedback. They even chose a citizen map to recommend to the Legislature when it met all of their criteria for fair maps. 

The commission welcomed hundreds of community-of-interest maps from people and worked to keep those communities whole. They adeptly balanced the needs of conflicting criteria and said no to maps that failed their standards. Most importantly, the commission purposely chose to be blind to all political party and incumbent information.  

In contrast, the legislative Redistricting Committee purposely included incumbent locations on their maps. When I loaded a map I created and saw the incumbents appear, I was incredibly tempted to adjust my map based on those locations. How tempting is it for legislators to draw districts that protect their own seats when they see that information? Can we trust them to prioritize public interests when their own interests are so prominently displayed? 

Meanwhile, the Independent Redistricting Commission built trust by being open, transparent and responsive. Its maps aren’t perfect. The process was shortened due to the late Census data release. Its maps would be even better after another month of refinement, incorporating public suggestions. Even so, we can still trust the integrity of the commission’s map-drawing process.

Now, legislators still have a choice for their process. Either they can choose to repeat the mistakes of the past. They can ignore the will of the people they represent. They can subvert the process by ignoring the commission and adopting maps drawn in a back room that haven’t withstood public scrutiny. 

Doing so would further contribute to division and mistrust in Utah as they unfairly split apart communities and dilute people’s voices. They would then listen for another 10 years to constituents complain about how the districts are unfair and how the people are ignored and how the Legislature can’t be trusted. 

Or the Legislature can respect and follow the process outlined in law in good faith, considering and balancing the needs of all the people they represent, including those who didn’t vote for them. They can choose maps created in full view in collaboration with the public. They can choose to help to rebuild a sense of fairness and trust by keeping communities whole. 

Then the Legislature would have created maps that all of Utah can be proud of. They would get to hear for the next 10 years how Utah is the premier example for the rest of the nation of how to draw districts fairly for all people. 

The Legislature chose to modify the Better Boundaries proposition in order to have the final say on the new district maps. With that decision-making power comes the great responsibility to ensure we end up with better boundaries that are fair for all Utahns. Contact your legislators now and ask them to choose maps that were created openly and collaboratively with the people of Utah and that keep communities whole. Ask the legislature to be the national model of a fair redistricting process.

Kris Campbell is a University of Utah doctoral candidate in computing, creating methods to analyze shapes of brain regions.