The Utah Senate on Wednesday voted 21-7 to approve a map that is poised to set Utah’s congressional district boundaries for the next 10 years.
The Senate vote gave the congressional map the final approval it needed to clear the full Republican-controlled Utah Legislature, after the House voted to approve the map after swift debate Tuesday.
By Wednesday evening, the full Utah Legislature also approved three other maps to set new political boundaries for state House and Senate legislative districts, as well as school board boundaries. Those maps had much more widespread bipartisan support, with many Democrats voting in favor of them, citing a collaborative process, even though some Democrats still tried to replace them with independently drawn maps.
The votes capped off Utah’s condensed redistricting process, which concluded after a two-day special session that also covered a wide array of other topics, including changing the southern Utah-based Dixie State University’s name to Utah Tech University and approving a bill to provide exceptions to President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine workplace requirements.
The maps now go to Gov. Spencer Cox’s desk for his consideration. The governor, a Republican, said Tuesday evening he’s not likely to veto the congressional map or any of the Legislature’s favored maps, saying he’s not a “bomb thrower.” Both the House and Senate approved the maps on veto-proof majorities.
“The Legislature is fully within their rights to actually make those decisions and decide where they want to draw those lines,” Cox said on his live Facebook town hall Tuesday night.
The governor from rural Fairview, Sanpete County, said he supports the approach to “represent a piece of rural Utah in every district.” To frustrations of Utahns feeling like they’ll never be represented fairly on the federal level, Cox said they must focus first on electing members of their party to the Utah Legislature. The governor also said there’s “certainly a partisan bend” in the redistricting process.
“If you have to divide counties, Republicans are always going to divide counties with lots of Democrats in them,” Cox said. “And Democrats are always going to divide counties with lots of Republicans in them. It’s happening all across the country.”
Utah’s GOP legislative leaders, however, argued the congressional map would benefit all of Utah, including Democrats.
“This map doesn’t dilute any voices, it actually combines urban and rural voices and elevates both,” said Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, while presenting the congressional map on the Senate floor.
Sandall served as co-chairman of the GOP-controlled Legislative Redistricting Committee, which opted to bring its own set of redistricting maps to the full Legislature and chose not to accept any of the maps recommended by the state’s Independent Redistricting Commission.
Sandall sought to throw water on Democrats’ biggest gripe with the congressional map, which splits Utah’s most populated county of Salt Lake County into four congressional districts.
The map slices Utah’s capital, the Democratic stronghold of Salt Lake City, and dissects areas like Sugar House, Millcreek, Murray and Holladay into four congressional districts. Other burgeoning Democratic areas like Sandy and Draper were lumped into the same district as conservative Utah County’s Provo, as well as Vernal in the far east corner of the state and Moab in the far southeast corner.
It’s a strategy called “cracking.” The Princeton Gerrymandering Project, a group with a stated goal to conduct nonpartisan analysis to “eliminate partisan gerrymandering at a state-by-state level across the U.S,” said the Legislature’s congressional map “cracks” the Salt Lake City area into four parts, “each of which is deprived of political power.”
“The ‘cracking’ of Salt Lake City eliminates political competition and divides a major community,” the Princeton Gerrymandering Project said in an open memo.
Democrats put up a fight
Senate Democrats, vastly outnumbered by Republicans, tried but failed to replace the congressional map with one that was recommended by the independent commission.
“Chop, chop chop,” said Senate Minority Leader Karen Mayne, D-Salt Lake City, calling the congressional map that divides her community “unacceptable.”
Mayne said she “never thought” she’d ever see Salt Lake County split into four congressional districts.
“Two was bad ... three was bad,” she said. “Now we’re at four.”
A lawmaker who represents rural Utah, Sen. David Hinkins, R-Ferron, rebuked Mayne, arguing urban Salt Lake County has long enjoyed more representation than rural Utahns.
“My heart bleeds for you. Really bleeds for you,” he said sarcastically to Mayne, noting about a dozen Utah senators live in the Salt Lake City area while he alone represents over six counties. “That kind of gives you a little taste of what we get in rural Utah.”
Salt Lake residents, Hinkins argued, don’t “have a clue what’s going on outside of Salt Lake. And so I think we’ve done a good job” with the congressional map.
Another conservative, Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, argued Utah’s congressional delegation should be a “united front” in a “broken” Washington, D.C.
“We have seen in years past where we have been divided, where we actually have members of our Utah congressional delegation — Senate and House — working against each other,” Anderegg said. “That doesn’t serve Utah. As much as we want to say it’s about representing the people, it doesn’t serve Utah.”
Washington, D.C., Anderegg said, “is about winning for itself,” blaming both Republicans and Democrats. Utah, he said, is “overlooked time and time again.”
“To me, this is so much less about Republicans versus Democrats, personally. This is about trying to make sure we have a united front back there fighting for the needs of all Utahns,” Anderegg said. “If we’re going to send a House divided back to Washington, D.C., we’re just asking to perpetuate the problem.”
Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, asked, “How it makes sense to shred Salt Lake City and dilute our voice?”
Sandall said he didn’t believe he’s “diluted anybody’s voice. Every person in this state has exactly the same opportunity to vote and have someone represent them.”
“We don’t come to consensus by leaving people out of the conversation,” he said of Salt Lake City residents. “We deserve to be in the conversation.”
So Kitchen tried to replace the congressional map with one recommended by the Independent Redistricting Commission. His proposal failed on a voice vote, with Democrats overpowered by Republicans.
In a statement issued after the Senate vote, Kitchen said lawmakers should have chosen one of the three proposals from the independent commission.
“Utahns are told time and time again to simply vote for change and take their frustrations to the polls — voters have done this and demanded an independent process be followed,” he said. “To ignore the commission’s maps and then blatantly split Salt Lake County into four ways with the proposed congressional boundaries is disrespectful to the process and to the people of Utah.”
In a joint statement issued after the Senate vote, members of the Senate Democratic caucus said the Legislature’s passage of the congressional map “blatantly silences the voices of Utahns through congressional boundaries that unacceptably divide and crack our communities.”
“Addressing the state’s complex social and economic issues and bringing our voice to Washington, D.C. — with representation from both our rural and urban centers — will not be realized with these imbalanced boundaries, and the people of Utah deserved better today,” Senate Democrats said.
“The Congressional map that passed the Legislature’s is an unacceptable abuse of power that did not include all voices nor meaningful input from the public,” they continued. “This discourages participation in democracy and in the legislative process.”
‘They’ve cracked us’
As night fell and as lawmakers continued their work into Wednesday evening, about 200 Utahns bundled up against the cold and rallied on the steps of the state Capitol to protest the Legislature’s decision to largely ignore the Independent Redistricting Committee’s maps and call on Cox to veto the maps.
They chanted “veto, veto, veto” and “shame, shame, shame.” Some held signs reading, “Stacking the deck so Republicans always win,” and “Veto gerrymandering.”
Former independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin, who recently launched a campaign to challenge GOP Sen. Mike Lee for his Senate seat, spoke at the rally, calling on Utah leaders to “respect the people’s will” and “do the right thing.”
“Utah’s leaders have made a disturbing habit of ignoring the will of the people, and it must end,” McMullin said.
Kitchen and Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, (both Democrats who sought to replace not just the congressional map but also the House, Senate and school board maps with an independent commission’s recommendation) also spoke at the rally.
“They’ve cracked us,” Kitchen told the crowd.
He and Riebe used the Legislature’s actions as a rallying cry, calling on frustrated Utahns to channel their energy toward electing more candidates who agree with them. “We need to change the makeup of both the House and the Senate,” Riebe said.
“We’re going to change the face of Utah one vote at a time,” she said.
Maybe then, Utah Democrats could have better outcomes in 10 years, when the state’s next set of maps are drawn.
Unless, in the meantime, an effort to contest the Utah Legislature’s maps finds any footing.
As Utah’s new maps head to the governor’s desk, Better Boundaries, the group behind the 2018 voter-approved ballot initiative that created the Independent Redistricting Commission, announced Tuesday it was gearing up for a possible legal challenge or a whole new ballot initiative.
“Better Boundaries is exploring legal and legislative solutions,” the group said in a prepared statement Tuesday, adding it has formed a PAC seeded with $50,000 to “pursue electoral consequences.”
“Additionally, we are preparing a future ballot initiative to repeal and replace the heavily gerrymandered district maps, should the legislature continue to dismiss the voice of the people of Utah when Proposition 4 passed in 2018,” the statement said.
As the Legislative Redistricting Committee capped off its work on Monday, Katie Wright, executive director of Better Boundaries, expressed her disappointment in the committee, telling lawmakers the maps they chose do not reflect “what we negotiated when we came to an agreement” over Proposition 4. She told lawmakers those negotiations now feel “disregarded.”
While the congressional map was approved by a super majority vote and is referendum proof, Better Boundaries could contest it with a legal challenge or a whole new ballot initiative.
Asked about Better Boundaries’ intentions to pursue a ballot initiative and other solutions, Sandall told reporters, “I guess that’s their prerogative.”
Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said he was “disappointed” that the Independent Redistricting Committee rejected a map supported by former Congressman Rob Bishop, which prompted Bishop’s resignation from the commission, complaining the commission wasn’t prioritizing rural Utah enough as it drafted its maps.
Adams’ comments echo the concerns already expressed by House Speaker Brad Wilson, who has suggested the Legislature should possibly reevaluate the independent commission and its process altogether, arguing Bishop’s resignation “shines a bright light on the fact that this maybe isn’t working the way that it was envisioned to.”
Asked if the Independent Redistricting Commission will remain intact in the future, Adams told reporters, “I’m not going to comment on that, but I am saying I’m really disappointed” that the commission recommended maps that “showed the donut map rather than anything else. I would have loved to see a little more variety in the maps they sent us.”