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Opinion: Redistricting should ensure all Utah communities are represented

Lawmakers should not reject an independent commission’s recommendation out of hand.

A man wearing a hat, American flag bandana and a mask waits to express his opinion on the Legislature’s redistricting maps.
Jerry Schmidt, wearing a hat, American flag bandana and mask, stands in line to expresses his opinion 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

Politics often hinges on careful calculations.

Proposition 4, which created an independent commission to redraw Utah’s political boundaries, passed by a narrow margin in 2018. It follows that rejecting that commission’s work likely will not result in much political backlash when Utah’s state lawmakers stand for reelection near the end of 2022.

But that doesn’t make it right.

No one should doubt how important redistricting is, or how widely lawmakers’ decisions on these maps will be felt. The process, which takes place after a new census every 10 years, sets the tone for a decade’s worth of political representation. Not only can it affect which party controls legislative bodies, it determines whether significant political and racial minority groups will be represented in the halls of power, which in turn determines the types of issues and arguments that are debated and considered.

The Independent Boundary Commission that Proposition 4 established consisted of some of Utah’s most prominent citizens. Its members included former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine Durham, former state Sens. Lyle Hillyard and Karen Hale, former State Court of Appeals Judge Bill Thorne, BYU associate professor of public management Rex Facer and geographic information systems specialist N. Jeffrey Baker.

Former Utah Rep. Rob Bishop was a member until he resigned over differences about whether the state’s congressional districts should each include a mix of urban and rural areas.

The commission’s charge was, among other things, to do all it could to preserve communities of interest. What that looks like can be a subject of great debate, but it’s not too hard to understand what it doesn’t look like.

At press time, it appeared lawmakers were set to approve maps that reject out of hand the work of the independent commission. Salt Lake City, home to many Democrats, would be split into two congressional districts. Other Democratic areas in Salt Lake County would be scattered among all four districts.

This is the Legislature’s privilege. The state constitution gives lawmakers final say in decennial redistricting, and Proposition 4 didn’t change that.

But it breaks faith with the people who, through the democratic process, put the commission in place. Voters supported Proposition 4 because they weren’t satisfied with how Utah’s changing demographics were being reflected in political realms.

Redistricting is, by nature, a political exercise. Republicans represent a majority of Utahns and would be expected to maintain majorities in state government and in its congressional delegation. But voters seemed to be saying they were not impressed by efforts to ensure Democrats have as little representation as possible, often at the expense of other interests, nor by maps that seem to make political power the main objective.

Gov. Spencer Cox will have the final say on Utah’s redistricting efforts. We urge him to pay close attention and to use the power of his office to direct the results.

Political calculations cut many ways. Rejecting out of hand the efforts of a distinguished independent commission would likely increase public cynicism and a distrust of government. More importantly, it wouldn’t provide effective representation for many of the state’s communities of interest.

Ultimately, it would be bad for a state that is increasingly becoming more diverse and complex.