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‘Good luck’: Independent redistricting commission pitches its maps, but decision rests with Utah lawmakers

Utah Legislature expected to meet in special session Nov. 9

SHARE ‘Good luck’: Independent redistricting commission pitches its maps, but decision rests with Utah lawmakers
The Capitol in Salt Lake City is pictured on April 4, 2021.

The Capitol in Salt Lake City is pictured on April 4, 2021. Utah’s contentious and condensed redistricting process is about to come to a head. In a matter of days, legislators at the helm of Utah’s Legislative Redistricting Committee aim to have a set of maps they’ll be ready to bring to their committee, then to the full Utah Legislature.

Annie Barker, Deseret News

Utah’s contentious and condensed redistricting process is about to come to a head.

In a matter of days, legislators at the helm of Utah’s Legislative Redistricting Committee aim to have a set of maps they’ll be ready to bring to their committee, then to the full Utah Legislature. In just one week, members of the Legislative Redistricting Committee are slated to convene one more time to finalize their maps, just one day before Nov. 9, the date they already have on their calendar for when the Legislature will convene in a special session to vote on the maps.

“So we’re hoping to have everything done on Monday?” Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, asked his Republican colleagues on the GOP-controlled Utah Legislative Redistricting Committee. “Holy smokes.”

Davis’ comments came near the close of a nearly four-hour committee hearing, to which about 150 Utahns showed up to listen to members of a separate body — the Utah Independent Redistricting Commission — present the product of their work after spending hundreds of hours traveling the state to hear Utahns’ wishes and live streaming their map drawing on YouTube as they sought to re-draw Utah’s political districts in a process that only happens every 10 years.

The independent commission, which sought to shield itself from partisan influence or data, presented 12 map proposals — three for each of Utah’s congressional, state House and Senate and school board boundaries.

“I want to be very clear,” the independent commission’s chairman, Rex Facer, told lawmakers. “We have not used partisan political data in the drafting of our maps. Our maps have been widely evaluated by national experts and they have been identified as fair maps (based on) our criteria.”

Throughout the meeting, members of the Utah Independent Redistricting Commission explained in painstaking detail the methods they used to draft their maps and fielded lawmakers’ questions before an overwhelming majority of public speakers urged lawmakers to pick from the independent commission’s maps, lauding the body’s transparent and data-based process.

But the Legislative Redistricting Committee doesn’t have to adopt any of the independent commission’s maps. The committee’s chairmen told reporters after Monday’s meeting they’ll take the commission’s proposals “into consideration,” but they made no promises.

“That’s what we’ve said all along,” Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, said. “We’re going to take a good, hard look at them. We’re going to overlay a lot of our data on top of them. We’re going to see if there are lines that make sense and where those lines cross and where they don’t cross.”

While the independent commission didn’t take into consideration where incumbents live while drawing its maps, the legislative committee will.

And even as the independent commission’s members sought to show how their process was as fair, data-based and politically unbiased as possible, one of the Legislative Redistricting Committee’s chairmen tried to cast doubt on that assertion during Monday’s meeting.

It was a poignant moment, drawing mutters and sideways glances from some members of the public sitting in the committee’s audience.

Sandall asked Facer if he was aware one of the commission’s recommended Congressional map proposals — the only map that was drawn by a member of the public, University of Utah student Stuart Hepworth, of South Jordan — was drawn with a redistricting tool that used partisan data.

“My point is not to incriminate,” Sandall said, “but to make a point there is always political bias that moves into anything when we put a line on a map.”

Sandall said “that de-elevates, a little bit, your principle of not using any partisan data,” calling the commission’s adoption of that map recommendation “a little disturbing.”

“It just illustrates the point of how easily political data becomes a part of this process, and no one is immune to it,” Sandall said.

Facer defended the map, saying they were aware of what tool Hepworth used, but determined his map met the independent redistricting commission’s criteria and didn’t see political data influenced it at all.

As one of the dozen or so members of the public who lined up to speak to the Legislative committee, Hepworth took the mic to also defend his map, which he said had been “attacked.”

“It is true that I was aware of the political data as I was drawing the map, however it did not consciously impact any decision that I made when drawing the map,” Hepworth said, noting his map was chosen because it “outperformed” the other map the redistricting commission was considering. “So I don’t believe that my political biases impacted the map whatsoever.”

Hepworth told lawmakers it is “vital in the interest of maintaining faith of the voters in government” for the Legislative Redistricting Committee to adopt the independent commission’s map recommendations. He challenged lawmakers to do any better.

“If the Legislature thinks it can do better than the commission, then it needs to demonstrate that by showing their maps outperform the commission maps by all of the commission’s own criteria and by subjecting such maps to a vigorous and transparent process the commission’s maps went through to get here,” Hepworth said.

Hepworth’s comments drew claps from the crowd, which wasn’t allowed under the committee’s decorum rules. Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, co-chairman of the committee, clamped down on the applause swiftly, saying, “No applause.”

What led Utah to this point?

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.

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.

But the GOP majority of the Utah Legislature, concerned that the commission would usurp the Legislature’s constitutional duty to oversee redistricting, stepped in.

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.

The seven-member independent redistricting commission was created to represent Utah’s population, of which 80% lives on the Wasatch Front while the remaining 20% lives in more rural areas scattered in larger areas across the state. Five members live in Wasatch Front areas that typically have more urban characteristics, while two members live in more rural areas.

But last week, former Congressman Rob Bishop abruptly resigned from the independent redistricting commission, complaining the commission was unfairly weighted to favor urban over rural interest.

Days after Bishop’s resignation, House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, acknowledged the “ink is still wet” on the independent commission’s recommended maps and it was too soon to say whether the Legislative Redistricting Commission would accept the map proposals, but he suggested the Utah Legislature would possibly reevaluate the independent commission and its process altogether.

The speaker said Bishop’s resignation “shines a bright light on the fact that this maybe isn’t working the way that it was envisioned to.”

“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 told reporters last week.

After Bishop’s resignation, Wilson appointed former Rep. Logan Wilde, who until earlier this year served as the Utah commissioner of Agriculture and Food, to fill Bishop’s vacancy on the Independent Redistricting Commission. Wilson said Wilde, as a “rural Utahn,” would bring “a unique perspective” even though his tenure on the commission would be only days long.

Asked by Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, what scenario would be “offensive” to the independent redistricting commission, depending on what happens next, Facer said the “thing that would be most offensive is if the commission were never to resurface again.”

“The work of the commission has been productive,” he said. “We have heard from colleagues across the country that our function has truly been a model of cooperative function. ... So I think what truly would be offensive is if this work didn’t go forward.”

‘Good luck’

Former Sen. Lyle Hillyard — a Republican from Logan who was Utah’s longest-serving member of the Legislature before he lost re-election in 2020 — lauded the commission and its process as one that was fair and not politically motivated in the slightest.

“I’m convinced if we had gotten into partisan politics,” Hillyard said, the maps “would have never been completed.”

Rather, Hillyard said the commission focused hard on “keeping cities together,” and if they had to be divided the members made sure it was a “clean cut.”

Lawmakers sitting on the Utah Legislative Redistricting Committee asked members of the independent commission numerous questions about maps’ boundaries and why they were drawn in certain ways. Facer and other members including Hillyard answered each question in depth, explaining instances when commission members had to make tough, technical choices while trying to balance the numbers while also not splitting communities that didn’t want to be split.

“We’ve done our best,” Hillyard said, though he added if the independent commission was charged with picking just one Congressional, state House, state Senate and school district map recommendation, “we would not agree.”

“Now, we’re going to kick the ball to you and say, ‘Good luck,’” Hillyard said, noting that while the independent commission only had seven members, the Utah Legislature has 104 voting members, so picking one map for each political jurisdiction will be a challenge.

Hillyard’s advice? “I learned a long time ago that politics is the art of compromise.”

“I for one,” Hillyard added, “will never criticize what you do because I know how difficult it really is going to be. ... Good luck.”