SALT LAKE CITY — Think you can redraw Utah’s four congressional districts to reflect the state’s changing population?
It’s harder than it looks, according to Christopher Collard, research analyst at the Utah Foundation who developed a new online tool released Tuesday to give Utahns the chance to try their hand at what state lawmakers will be doing next year based on the latest numbers from the once-in-a-decade federal census.
“I thought I could do such a good job,” Collard said of shifting the boundaries of the four districts to ensure that each has the same number of people. “I found out when I started to make things work it was a little bit more challenging than I thought.”
He said the interactive map, available at utahfoundation.org/redistricting, is intended to offer just “a little taste. It’s not nearly as complicated as what the actual process will be. But it gives people a sample what the process will be like. ... I’m a numbers guy and this is lots of fun.”
The independent, nonpartisan and nonprofit research organization also posted “Lines in the Sand: A Primer on Redistricting in Utah,” explaining the process Utah lawmakers will use in redrawing congressional, legislative and State School Board boundaries in 2021.
Collard said he became interested in the process in 2018, the year voters approved Proposition 4, creating an independent redistricting commission to recommend new boundaries to the Utah Legislature intended to avoid gerrymandering, the redrawing of districts to favor a political party or incumbents.
Last session, lawmakers passed a new version of the Better Boundaries citizens initiative after reaching a compromise with its backers that preserves the independent redistricting commission but also made changes seen as necessary to protect the Legislature’s constitutionally mandated role.
Critics of the compromise, however, said accountability and transparency were lost in the deal.
The Utah Foundation brief points out there continues to be debate nationally about the legality of gerrymandering.
“There has been movement in recent years to find a ‘fair’ way to redistrict, though fairness can be interpreted in many different ways,” the policy brief states. “Still, using the quest for fairness, states like Utah have created independent commissions to conduct or advise on the redistricting process.”
Collard said he’s been working on the interactive tool for some time, but the foundation waited until after the Legislature acted on Proposition 4 before releasing it, so the details of the process could be updated in the accompanying brief.
“We mostly wanted to explain the process of redistricting, help the public in Utah understand what it is and why it’s important,” he said. “ We also wanted to give the public the chance to play around and understand for themselves the different trade-offs.”
The release is also timed to the April 1 deadline for completing the census, Collard said, a reminder of the importance of participating in the count that determines how many congressional representatives each state will receive, as well as how the districts are divided.
“The whole reason behind the census is to determine representation,” he said. “Every person counts.”