Facebook Twitter

Opinion: Redistricting ensures a sizzling political summer in Utah

SHARE Opinion: Redistricting ensures a sizzling political summer in Utah
A worker carries a bin of ballots to a rolling cart as election workers process ballots at the Salt Lake County Clerk’s Office in Salt Lake City

A worker carries a bin of ballots to a rolling cart as election workers process ballots at the Salt Lake County Clerk’s Office in Salt Lake City on Nov. 3, 2020.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Political redistricting happens only once every decade, but it’s always a traumatic event for many politicians. It also provides a forum for political do-gooder groups that want to do the impossible — take politics out of the process. And, it provides a gold mine of speculation for political hacks like us.  

A new element this year is the independent redistricting commission that will hold hearings and draw maps in parallel with the legislative redistricting committee. What dynamics will this create? Will the two entities be complementary or adversarial?

Pignanelli: “She was from the wrong side of the tracks no matter how you gerrymandered the town.” — James Lileks   

A signatory to the Declaration of Independence and member of the Continental Congress, Elbridge Gerry utilized mercantile contacts to supply the Revolutionary American Army. As delegate to the Constitutional Convention, he was instrumental in developing our governmental structure. Opposed to slavery, Gerry pushed against the provision counting slaves as three-fifths of a free person in apportionment. He was invaluable in passing the Bill of Rights.

Before serving as James Madison’s vice president, Gerry was governor of Massachusetts. In 1812, despite concerns with some details, he signed the redistricting legislation. Political opponents were outraged, comparing the shape of a Senate district to a salamander — giving birth to term “gerrymander.”

The politics of redistricting are so volatile that even an amazing founding father like Gerry continues to be unfairly blemished after 200 years. The upcoming clash in Utah will be equally emotional. The objectives of the new commission will clash with the realities lawmakers must confront. Personalities, incumbency and the needs of local jurisdictions will be in play — as they have for centuries. These struggles are a tiresome but necessary struggle in a healthy democracy.

As redistricting heats up in Utah, one of the most effective partisan attacks in history — a salamander cartoon — will be recalled incessantly. Poor Gerry.

Webb: This will be redistricting year like no other. News media interest will be intense. Besides the legislative redistricting committee and the independent redistricting committee drawing maps at the same time, progressive groups like Better Boundaries (which got the measure on the ballot creating the independent commission) and the Alliance for a Better Utah will be hovering over the process, analyzing every line the Republican Legislature draws.

In addition, political parties will monitor and try to influence the process, along with legislators, members of Congress, and cities and counties that don’t want to be chopped up.

Passions will be inflamed, feelings will be hurt and national interest will be extreme. Incumbents and challengers will be impatient to know their district configurations so they can begin campaigning. For political junkies, it will be a fun summer and fall.

Utah’s population has boomed over the last decade, especially in new suburban areas. What will be the impact of the growth patterns on legislative and congressional redistricting and will there be winners and losers?

Pignanelli: Demographics is the source of pain in redistricting. Utah County and other regions have boomed in population and will receive new legislative seats at the expense of Salt Lake City and east Salt Lake County. The commission cannot prevent this mathematical dynamic. The result will demonstratively impact partisan makeup, leadership and even focus of issues in future legislative sessions.

Webb: Courts have been adamant that legislatures create political districts equal in population. Population equity trumps everything else. So high-growth areas, most of them Republican majority, will gain representation, while no-growth or slow-growth areas will lose. Northern Utah County and southwestern Salt Lake County will be winners. Older urban neighborhoods will lose a little political clout.

Those drawing maps will try to keep cities, counties and communities of interest together. But because district populations must be equal, that won’t always be possible. It’s easy to look at one area, or even a region, and keep communities together. But when boundaries and equal districts have to be extended statewide, it is impossible to please everyone.  

Is it likely a safe Democratic congressional district will be created, or will the Republican legislative majority try to evenly distribute Democratic votes among the four congressional districts?

Pignanelli: In prior redistricting deliberations, there was serious talk of a “lean Democrat” district. Apparently, national GOP bigwigs balked at giving Dems a “gimme.” Because Republicans are a few seats away from recapturing the majority in the U.S. House, the scientific prediction of a Democratic seat formed by the redistricting committee in 2021 is exactly 0%.

Webb: Congressional boundaries will be the biggest battle of the redistricting wars. Republicans will argue, somewhat persuasively, that each congressional district should include some urban, suburban and rural components. This ensures that all members of the delegation are concerned about both urban and rural issues. Democrats will argue, also persuasively, that because Democrats routinely win more than 25% of the vote in Utah, they should certainly get one congressional seat.  

It’s gonna be messy, and control of the U.S. House of Representatives could hang in the balance. The political intrigue will be thick.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah Legislature.