Opinion: Why Utah’s redistricting commission was ignored

Unless someone loses an election because of it, lawmakers will continue drawing the maps they want

Why did Utah lawmakers ignore the political maps drawn by an independent commission last year? That’s easy — because they saw no political risk. They likely won’t have to pay at the ballot box, and that’s especially true considering they have drawn districts that favor themselves as incumbents. 

Why won’t they pay? Because redistricting isn’t likely to be an issue that gains much traction this fall — at least not in today’s hyperpartisan climate. 

A recent Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found a plurality offended by how state lawmakers redrew things, but in two questions asked on the subject, large percentages said they just didn’t know. When asked whether they supported the final boundaries passed by lawmakers, a whopping 43% had no opinion, compared to 32% who were opposed.

With taxes, mask mandates, inflation, critical race theory and a number of other issues staring voters in the face, redistricting seems a bit technical and boring. 

In any event, it won’t come up again until 2031, a date well beyond everyone’s scheduling software at the moment.

But the truth is, it may be the most important thing any state does every 10 years. That may be American democracy’s best kept secret. 

Taken collectively, among the 50 states, redistricting could determine which party controls Congress during the decade. In a state dominated by a single party, such as Utah, it can protect the majority from incursions by the minority party, even in the face of changing demographics.

That makes redistricting about as blatantly political as anything a legislative body could be assigned to do. It also explains why states that tried to turn this over to independent commissions last year had such a rough time of it.

The spirit of Elbridge Gerry, the founding father whose crafty way of drawing districts led to what we today call gerrymandering, is alive and well. And he affects both major parties.

In Democratic New York, lawmakers disregarded the maps drawn by a bipartisan commission, as did Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin. Neither state has finalized its boundaries yet, according to fivethirtyeight.com

In Ohio, the state supreme court last week threw out maps drawn by the Republican majority and sent the task to a bipartisan commission. It isn’t looking good. “These folks are not used to working in a bipartisan fashion,” one reform advocate told the Columbus Dispatch.

Virginia has a 16-member commission with eight lawmakers and eight regular citizens. The New York Times reports that “the commission has deadlocked 8-to-8 on nearly every vote …”   

Utah, in other words, isn’t alone. It would have been hard to assemble a more prominent commission than what the Beehive State had. It included former lawmakers and a retired state supreme court justice. But when former congressman Rob Bishop, the most prominent member of Utah independent redistricting commission, resigned in protest just a week before the deadline to submit maps, it was for political reasons. He had, among other things, accused the commission of trying to gerrymander Democratic seats.

What does this mean for the craft of drawing political maps in Utah’s future? For one thing, it’s hard to decouple the process from politics. For another, unless voters become more energized, lawmakers aren’t going to listen much to the people who do speak out.

A recent analysis by the Deseret News and KSL-TV looked at 3,779 emails sent to state House and Senate members about the redistricting process. Of these, 930 either asked them to approve the independent commission’s maps or expressed displeasure with the Legislature’s versions. Only 11 wrote to say they approved of lawmakers’ maps.

It didn’t matter. 

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Of course, you could argue that the ones who wrote disproportionately represented people with a stake in the matter, who tended to be Democrats. But that brings us full circle back to all those people who have no opinion on the matter and the small likelihood anyone will lose a seat over any of this.

Don’t listen to the arguments that people want congressional districts that are part urban and part rural. The director of the Marron Institute of Urban Management, Kevin Cromar, told me last year he contacted more than 50 mayors statewide and found nearly all of them in favor of grouping their cities in a district with other similar-sized cities — urban with urban, rural with rural. 

Utah’s redistricting commission came about after a ballot proposition passed by a narrow margin, with only 50.34% in favor. Lawmakers have the final word because the state constitution says so.

Unless that changes, or someone important loses a job because voters don’t like a map, 2031 will look a lot like 2021.

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