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Utah’s new voting districts could see a legal challenge. Here’s what happened in other states

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.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Better Boundaries, the Utah group that pushed for the 2018 voter-approved ballot initiative that created an independent redistricting commission to oversee an update of Utah’s voting districts, is considering a lawsuit that would challenge the state’s new electoral boundaries.

The Utah Legislature and Gov. Spencer Cox recently gave a green light to the state’s new political boundaries, cementing voting districts for the next 10 years.

Those districts were set by lawmakers, not by the independent commission.

It was a controversial process that drew hundreds of Utahns to the Capitol to criticize the legislative redistricting committee’s proposed maps, urging them to instead adopt maps proposed by the independent redistricting commission.

Despite the outcry, the Republican-controlled panel approved its own maps, and about 24 hours later the Legislature accepted them during a special session.

Not long after the legislative committee recommended the maps, Better Boundaries launched a PAC seeded with $50,000 with the intention to “defeat incumbents who demonstrated that they are more interested in self-preservation and partisan politics than serving constituents,” according to the group’s website. And now, the group might challenge the districts in the courtroom.

Better Boundaries is currently taking donations for a legal challenge on its website, but in a Wednesday interview with the Deseret News, executive director Katie Wright stressed the group is still in its exploratory phase.

“We take really seriously the idea of pursuing a lawsuit. We certainly will never invest any of our donors’ funds in anything that’s frivolous,” said Wright. “So we are doing an assessment to see if there is an achievable or feasible path. And if there is, we will look towards pursuing a lawsuit.”

Wright said she hopes any potential litigation would result in “an understanding from the courts that there needs to be some protection around redistricting.” She’s hoping the group will know whether a lawsuit is feasible by early January.

What states have seen court battles over voting districts?

In the last three years, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and most recently Texas have all been battlegrounds in the debate over what is gerrymandering, and what is fair redistricting. The case in Texas is ongoing.

If Better Boundaries files a lawsuit, it could argue that the current districts violate the “elections to be free” clause of the state constitution, a similar approach taken by groups in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, which proved to be successful.

Utah’s constitution mandates “all elections shall be free, and no power, civil or military, shall at any time interfere to prevent the free exercise of the right of suffrage.”

“We have seen, successfully, in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, where state Supreme Courts have ruled in favor of groups who have brought lawsuits against the partisan gerrymandering under their state’s fair election clause,” said Wright.

Another approach would be to argue Utah’s voting districts are violating anti-discrimination laws — the logic used by the United States Department of Justice in its Texas suit.

Pennsylvania

In 2018, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in favor of the League of Women Voters, which argued in a lawsuit that the state’s congressional districts violated the state constitution.

The court ruled that the state’s Republican party violated the Pennsylvania constitution by undermining “voters’ ability to exercise their right to vote in free and ‘equal’ elections, if the term is to be interpreted in any credible way,” according to The Washington Post.

The state’s legislature and governor were unable to agree on a new map by a deadline imposed by the court, resulting in the justices themselves drawing the new districts. According to the Post, the court-drawn map split 13 counties in the state between multiple districts, which is nearly half the counties divided by the GOP’s map, originally drawn in 2011.

The 2011 maps were so scattered that one district in the Philadelphia area was the subject of the Washington Post’s “Name That District” contest — submissions included “laughing girl with pigtails kicks nun,” “Popeye holding hands with Olive Oyl,” and ultimately the winner, “Goofy kicking Donald Duck.”

North Carolina

A year later, the North Carolina Supreme Court deemed the legislative maps unconstitutional, accusing the GOP of partisan gerrymandering.

Common Cause North Carolina, the group that filed the suit, successfully used the same logic as the Pennsylvania case, arguing the maps violated the state constitution’s clauses that guarantee free elections and equal protection under the law.

R. Stanton Jones, a Washington-based lawyer who was involved in both suits, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the Pennsylvania case provided a legal outline used in the North Carolina case.

“We began to think about and look at places where we could replicate, where we could employ the same strategy to solve the problem of partisan gerrymandering,” Jones told the Inquirer.

The North Carolina battle also featured a United States Supreme Court ruling that allows state courts to decide whether a map is gerrymandered, but prevents federal courts from doing so.

According to The New York Times, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote that state constitutions can “provide standards and guidance for state courts to apply.”

Texas

In December, the United States Department of Justice filed a lawsuit challenging Texas’ statewide redistricting plans, accusing the state of gerrymandering to exclude nonwhite voters from the democratic process.

The department is taking a different approach than groups in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, alleging Texas is violating Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires state voting laws give voters an equal opportunity to participate in the electoral process.

That includes laws that draw election maps, according to a press release from the Department of Justice.

The complaint “alleges that Texas has violated Section 2 by creating redistricting plans that deny or abridge the rights of Latino and Black voters to vote on account of their race, color or membership in a language minority group,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in the release.

A federal court will decide whether to stop the use of Texas’ maps for the upcoming 2022 election, which could potentially upend the state’s March 1 primaries, according to the Dallas Morning News. Candidates started filing on Nov. 13, and the deadline to file has since passed.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton called the lawsuit “absurd” in a statement to the Dallas Morning News.

“I am confident that our Legislature’s redistricting decisions will be proven lawful, and this preposterous attempt to sway democracy will fail,” he said.