After former Congressman Rob Bishop abruptly resigned from Utah’s independent redistricting commission earlier this week, a state legislative leader suggested the Utah Legislature would possibly reevaluate the independent commission process altogether.
Bishop’s resignation “shines a bright light on the fact that this maybe isn’t working the way that it was envisioned to,” House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, told reporters Wednesday.
“And so, we may need to go back to the drawing board and determine whether this process makes sense and, if it does, what does that look like?” Wilson said.
The speaker’s comments came during a news conference in his office two days after Bishop, Wilson’s appointee to the commission, walked out just a week away from the group’s deadline to submit its recommended maps to the state lawmakers. Bishop complained the commission had more members from urban areas along the Wasatch Front and not enough rural representation.
Utah Independent Redistricting Commission Chairman Rex Facer on Tuesday said he was “saddened” by Bishop’s comments, defending the commission as a body that brings “tremendous value” to Utah’s redistricting process and one that aimed to “insulate itself from partisan data.”
Wilson said Bishop “tapped out in frustration” with the process, taking particular issue with the way congressional map recommendations were being drafted.
“He believes — and I also believe — that we are a state that is largely still, in terms of landmass, a rural state,” Wilson said. “And there’s a lot of importance and benefits to this state of having the members of our congressional delegation all understand, and working for rural Utah, back in Congress.
Bishop “believes in that passionately,” Wilson said. “He felt like the commission was turning a blind eye to that and not giving that the weight and the importance that it deserves.”
The commission was created after Utah voters in 2018 narrowly approved a ballot initiative calling for an independent redistricting commission to draw new maps that will be used to help decide who voters can vote for to represent their area’s interests. The aim of the commission was to ensure Utah’s next set of political boundaries would be decided regardless of politics and without partisan gerrymandering.
In 2020, the Legislature struck a deal with Better Boundaries backers, designating the Utah Independent Redistricting Commission as only an adviser to state lawmakers, who will ultimately decide what maps get approved. Lawmakers sought the compromise to preserve the spirit of the ballot initiative while not overriding the Legislature’s constitutional duties to oversee redistricting.
The redistricting process happens every 10 years. The maps that are ultimately adopted will determine the boundaries of Utah’s political districts for the next decade, all the way from school boards to the state Legislature to Congress.
Angered by Wilson’s comments, the Utah Democratic Party later Wednesday circulated a statement questioning whether Republicans are preparing to “tear up” the independent redistricting commission “because their own appointee threw a tantrum.”
“While Republicans seek to subvert the will of the people and ‘reevaluate’ the UIRC, Democrats remember that the advisory role of the commission is subversion of the will of the people in the first place, who gave the commissioners a mandate to draw fair and balanced maps that give Utah fair representation — allowing Utahns to pick their politicians, not the other way around,” the Utah Democratic Party said in a news release.
Diane Lewis, acting party chairwoman, in a prepared statement slammed Wilson’s comments as evidence that Republicans are subverting the will of voters.
“In case it wasn’t already clear, Republicans are looking to completely throw away your decision and your voice when you, the people, passed Prop 4 in 2018,” Lewis said. “The playbook is almost impressive in its bald-facedness: cast doubt on the commission, tell the people that the Republican supermajority knows better than the voters, and then use their own appointee’s temper-tantrum resignation as a reason to dismantle the commission as a whole.”
Asked whether Bishop’s resignation gives the Legislature grounds to not accept the maps recommended by the independent commission, Wilson said not necessarily.
“The way that we’ve always viewed the work from the commission is these are recommendations that we can consider. I don’t think that Congressman Bishop’s abrupt resignation changes that. They’re still recommendations.”
Wilson added the “responsibility ultimately rests with the people that are accountable to the public. So we’ll see what happens.”
Asked to elaborate on perhaps revisiting the independent commission and whether it’s working, Wilson did not offer specifics but said a “post-process evaluation” was likely.
“There’s a difference between the mechanics of the independent commission working and whether or not it’s arriving at the right conclusions,” he said.
He added: “I haven’t had a chance to visit with, you know, people in terms of their observations of the work product. I think it’s a little early to guess what that conversation will look like, but you will see a sort of post-process evaluation of this. I think we all want to know, after you do something for the first time, did you get the outcome you were hoping for? And so we’ll have that conversation.”
Wilsons said the “ink is still wet” on the commission’s recommended maps. The panel is slated to present those maps to the Legislative Redistricting Committee next week, “and between now and then we’ll look at those and see how that work has turned out.”
But again, Wilson said the decisions rest with lawmakers.
“The Legislature — by our Constitution — has the responsibility to make the best decisions. So we’ll take feedback from the commission,” he said. “We will take feedback from the hundreds and hundreds of maps that the public has submitted to us. And the people that are accountable to the voters will be the ones that can make the final decision as our state constitution requires.”