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Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signs off on controversial congressional map that ‘cracks’ Salt Lake County

Better Boundaries pursuing ‘all options’ for binding independent commission

Utahns rally in opposition to the proposed congressional district maps at the Capitol in Salt Lake City.
Utahns rally in opposition to the proposed congressional district maps at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. As expected, Gov. Spencer Cox on Friday signed off on the new congressional map approved by the Republican-controlled Utah Legislature in a special session earlier this week.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

It’s official. The next generation of Utah’s congressional district boundaries has been set for the next 10 years.

As expected, Gov. Spencer Cox on Friday signed off on the new congressional map approved by the Republican-controlled Utah Legislature in a special session earlier this week.

Cox’s signature on HB2004 finalizes the map that splits Salt Lake County, the state’s most populous, into four congressional districts — a map that Republican lawmakers drafted while largely ignoring a different set of maps drawn by the Independent Redistricting Commission.

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 eastern corner of the state, and Moab, in the far southeast corner.

The Princeton Gerrymandering Project calls that strategy “cracking,” or breaking up an area to deprive it of political power. The group’s redistricting report card gave the Legislature’s congressional map a zero for partisan fairness, noting all four of its boundaries are heavily weighted toward Republicans.

“The ‘cracking’ of Salt Lake City eliminates political competition and divides a major community,” the Princeton Gerrymandering Project said in an open memo.

Cox, who faced calls to veto the Legislature’s maps, said earlier this week he wouldn’t, saying he’s not a “bomb thrower.” He said the Legislature is “fully within their rights” to draw Utah’s next set of political districts.

The governor, from rural Fairview in Sanpete County, also said he supports the approach to represent a piece of rural Utah in every district, though he acknowledged 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 on his live Facebook town hall Tuesday night. “And Democrats are always going to divide counties with lots of Republicans in them. It’s happening all across the country.”

Utah Rep. Chris Stewart, currently the longest tenured Utah member of the U.S. House, applauded the Legislature’s redistricting work in an interview with the Deseret News. He said the boundaries of his new district are “very very close” to the same as his current district.

“We’ve always told the state Legislature and committee who’s worked on this, ‘Hey, you guys decide what’s the right thing and we’ll try to make it work and be successful in whatever district we end up in,’” Stewart said.

Stewart, a Republican, also said he likes the urban-rural mix approach.

“I know some people will say, ‘Well, that’s just a way for you guys to protect the Republican interest,’ but it’s really not,” Stewart said. “There’s only four of us. Only four members of Congress. The rural issues, the public lands and the water issues are so critical to our state.”

Stewart said Utah’s congressional delegation’s representation in Washington, D.C., is crucial because of how much federal land there is within Utah.

“If you were to carve that out and give it to one maybe two members of Congress and have the others not represent the rural interest, then you’ve lost half of your voice,” Stewart said.

The Utah Legislature approved the congressional map despite pushback from Democrats and Better Boundaries, the group behind the 2018 voter-approved ballot initiative that created the Independent Redistricting Commission but agreed in a 2020 compromise with GOP legislators to turn the commission into only an adviser to lawmakers, who legislative leaders argued should make the ultimate decision under the state constitution.

In a statement issued after Cox’s signature, Katie Wright, executive director of Better Boundaries, said “the total disregard of the Independent Redistricting Commission’s maps is deeply disappointing to Better Boundaries and Utahns statewide.”

“Utahns now have districts that are egregiously partisan gerrymandered, sliced and diced cities and counties, which were drawn behind closed doors,” Wright said.

While the independent commission’s maps ignored incumbent data and sought to draw maps free from political bias, the Legislature’s preferred maps factored in and, for the most part, protected incumbents.

“Utahns have been clear that they want a process that centers voters, instead of protecting politicians,” Wright said. “We now know that an apolitical, transparent process is possible, thanks to the stellar work for our independent commissioners.”

Even though lawmakers argued it’s their constitutional duty to draw new redistricting maps, Wright said, “The authority of redistricting is not exclusive to the state Legislature.”

In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Arizona’s independent redistricting commission was constitutional.

Now, Better Boundaries is gearing up for a new fight for the future of Utah’s redistricting process, possibly in court or at the ballot box.

The group has formed a political action committee seeded with $50,000 to pursue “electoral consequences for incumbents of both parties,” Wright said.

“We’re also pursuing a legal path to a binding commission, whether through the courts or another ballot initiative,” she said. “All options are on the table.”

Cox as of Friday hadn’t yet signed the other three maps approved by the Utah Legislature to set the state House and Senate legislative districts, as well as new school board districts. He’s expected to sign them in the coming days.

Contributing: Dennis Romboy