Did Utah lawmakers do the right thing with redistricting? Here’s what Utahns think

The Utah Legislature and Gov. Spencer Cox put their final stamps of approval on the next generation of Utah’s political boundaries last month — but a new poll shows only about a quarter of Utahns approve of the new congressional districts that split Salt Lake County four ways.

Additionally, less than 20% of Utahns agreed with the Utah Legislature considering its own set of maps rather than the maps recommended by the Independent Redistricting Commission that was created by a 2018 voter-approved ballot initiative.

But there’s another part of the story.

Though wonky, redistricting is an incredibly important process that happens once every decade — yet many Utahns don’t even know what to think about the way those maps were drawn.

All this is according to a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll conducted by Dan Jones & Associates of 812 registered Utah voters Nov. 18-30. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.44 percentage points.

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Asked whether they support or oppose the new congressional districts dividing Salt Lake County into four congressional districts, only 25% of Utahns said they support the map and 32% said they oppose it. However, the largest chunk of Utahns — 43% — said they didn’t know what to think.

In a separate question, pollsters asked Utahns whether they thought the Utah Legislature should have voted on any of the maps proposed by the Independent Redistricting Commission. Forty-six percent said yes, 19% said no, and 35% said they didn’t know.

Even though voters approved the Better Boundaries initiative in 2018 to create the Independent Redistricting Commission tasked with drawing Utah’s next set of political boundaries, a GOP-controlled panel of Utah lawmakers decided to put forth its own set of maps rather than the ones recommended by the independent commission.

Democrats in the House and Senate tried to replace the Legislative committee’s congressional maps with ones drawn by the independent commission, but those attempts failed on party lines one by one as the Republican-supermajority Legislature plowed ahead with the legislative committee’s preferred maps.

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There was less partisan divide, however, over the maps setting political boundaries for the state’s House and Senate legislative districts, as well as 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 while citing a collaborative process. But that didn’t stop other Democrats from still trying to replace them with independently drawn maps, all unsuccessfully.

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Gov. Cox not surprised by poll

Asked about the poll results during his monthly PBS Utah news conference this week, Gov. Spencer Cox referred to his past comments that the Legislature is “fully within their rights” under the Utah Constitution to draw Utah’s next set of political districts.

Cox signed the maps, saying he’s not a “bomb thrower,” and if Utahns want to change anything about the process they need to start by focusing their attention on who they elect to the state House and Senate.

“I don’t know if I have anything new to add to that conversation other than what the constitution of the state of Utah says,” Cox said.

However, he added: “I’m not surprised by those numbers. I think that that was always the danger that the Legislature ran when this process was set up in the first place, and so I suspect that we’ll see pushes to change that again for the next 10 years.”

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After the Legislature largely ignored the independent commission’s maps, the group Better Boundaries said it was exploring all options for future challenges, including a possible legal challenge or a whole new ballot initiative.

To Better Boundaries, the poll results confirm many Utahns feel ignored.

“A majority of Utahns supported an independent commission when they voted for gerrymandering reform in 2018. This poll confirms there were many thousands of Utahns who participated with the redistricting process only to find their voice was ignored,” said Noah Rosenberg, a Better Boundaries board member, in a prepared statement.

Unpacking the ‘don’t knows’

To Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, the poll’s most “telling” figures are of those Utahns who haven’t formed an opinion about Utah’s redistricting process.

“The most interesting number here is the number of people that don’t know,” Perry said.

The large numbers of Utahns that didn’t know how to answer the poll questions show Utah’s redistricting process this year was “complicated” and fraught with “confusion” about what the role of the Independent Redistricting Commission was compared to the Utah Legislature, he said.

“I think a lot of those issues created confusion,” Perry said, while also noting, “This is something that only happens every 10 years. So I think you put all of these things together, and we just have a huge portion of the population that just don’t know.”

That’s “telling,” he said, because while those who work in political circles often “talk about the importance of these maps,” many Utahns just haven’t formed an opinion about it.

The fact that a majority of Utah voters — though it was a slim majority — voted to approve the 2018 ballot initiative likely explains why a large chunk of respondents said the Utah Legislature should have voted on those independent maps, Perry said.

“A good portion of Utahns really did like the idea of maps being submitted by an independent commission and voted on by the Legislature, but what happens next is where the confusion seems to be,” he said.

“Did the Legislature do it right? Did they do it wrong? Well, a good portion of Utahns don’t have an opinion about whether the Legislature should have or shouldn’t have. They mostly like the idea of it, but there is a lack of consensus on what the Legislature should have done with those maps.”