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New commission anxious to bring public into process of drawing new political boundaries

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A voter fills in a ballot at Vivint SmartHome Arena in Salt Lake City on Election Day, Nov. 3, 2020.

A voter fills in a ballot on a voting machine during Election Day voting at Vivint SmartHome Arena in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. Utah’s Independent Redistricting Commission is hoping to begin meeting in April to start work on a plan to redraw political boundaries.

Yukai Peng, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — What has historically been completed by partisan hands behind closed doors every 10 years, the redrawing of Utah’s political boundaries appears to be headed to a more open process as the newly organized Utah Independent Redistricting Commission will hold its first meeting today.

“I am excited for the commitment that the members of the commission have in doing that. We’re committed to doing this in a fair, open and transparent way that really strives to serve the interests of the citizens of Utah,” said Rex Facer, chairman of the Utah Independent Redistricting Commission.

The commission will hold its first meeting via Zoom on Tuesday, April 13, at 6 p.m. and will primarily focus on housekeeping issues like review of candidates for executive director.

In 2018 voters narrowly approved Proposition 4 to promote fairer drawing of legislative and congressional district boundaries to avoid gerrymandering. The 2020 Legislature passed SB200 setting up the makeup of the independent commission that is tasked with redistricting based on the 2020 census.

Facer, an associate professor of public management in the Romney Institute of Public Service and Ethics at Brigham Young University’s Marriott School, said the commission will have to balance competing principles in the mapping process, some legal, some ethical.

“That’s where the real kind of challenge of drawing the boundaries will come in, is trying to make boundaries that are fair and meet the standards that are outlined in law, but also meet the needs of the community. That’s where the real work of the commission is going to lie,” Facer said.

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With the support of Better Boundaries, the group that spearheaded the ballot initiative, SB200 set commission membership at seven: two appointed by majority party leadership, two by the minority party leadership, two independent, and one chairperson appointed by the governor.

No commissioner can hold public office to avoid any conflicts of interest.

Besides Facer, the initial commission members are: former Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine Durham; former state Sen. Pat Jones; former State Court of Appeals Judge Bill Thorne; former state Sen. Lyle Hillyard, former 1st District Congressman Rob Bishop; and N. Jeffrey Baker.

Goal of empowering Utah voters

Noah Rosenberg, acting executive director at Better Boundaries, said “the biggest key ingredient is the participation of the public. We designed Proposition 4 and then in the compromise that we had with the Legislature in 2020, we set this process up to empower Utahns to make their voices heard. But that process doesn’t work unless people actually show up to say something and give their input.”

Part of that input will include encouraging attendance at the public meetings, giving testimony and being in communication with the commissioners, Rosenberg said.

Redistricting has been the role of the Legislature, with the majority party often seen as drawing lines to ensure its members keep power through gerrymandering enough of its registered voters into each district.

“I don’t think anyone can really fault them for being worried about how the new districts affect them,” Rosenberg said.

Through SB200, the independent commission will still need to submit its proposed maps for final approval to a joint legislative redistricting committee.

“We hope that our maps will stand on their own and that the public will support the work that we’ve done,” Facer said. “That will make it much more likely that the Legislature is willing to adopt the maps based on the work that the commission will be doing.”

Better Boundaries’ Proposition 4 wanted each voting district to respect communities or areas that share similar values and ideas, to follow geographic barriers and to try and keep cities and counties together so as to not split representation unnecessarily.

Getting a start on the process

When it comes to drawing new political districts, the information about Utah communities is provided by the U.S. Census Bureau. But numerous challenges to what data should be used, as well as trying to gather information during a pandemic, is delaying the release of the official report until September.

Facer said the commission will have to wait to make many of the mapping decisions until it receives the newest census data, putting pressure on the commission to perform its duties in time for the 2022 legislative session.

Once the bureau releases the information to Utah, Rosenberg said the commission will have a lot of work to do before having to submit finished maps to the Legislature by the end of November. There is some leeway, but meeting the deadline would prevent potential problems for the 2022 election cycle if boundaries aren’t set.

“But in some ways, it frees us up and gives us more time to hold public meetings and to do that before we get the data. But after we get the data, we’ll really be in a compact window, where we’re trying to get additional input from people across the state as well as work through the issues that they’ve already shared with us,” Facer said.

For now, he said plans are to get the administrative house in order.

Rosenberg doesn’t have a doubt the commission will be able to get the job done.

“I really do think all of the work that we’ve done is really a testament to the industrious nature of Utahns,” said Rosenberg. “Whether it’s getting on the ballot or passing in 2018 or negotiating the compromise or being appointed to the commission, or like any of these different parts, I don’t think any of this would be possible without the help of tons of different people.”

He said Better Boundaries will still be along for the ride to help the commission.

“I want to make sure if we know a math expert or someone who specializes in the Voting Rights Act, or things like that that those resources are available to the commissioners,” Rosenberg said. “I know it can be kind of a giant. It’s like getting tossed into the deep end in many ways; most people don’t have a ton of experience with redistricting.”

Facer said that he was honored to be chosen as the chairman of the commission.

“From the work that I’ve done with members of our Legislature, I’m impressed with their commitment to try and do what’s best for the state of Utah,” Facer said. “That’s sometimes very difficult, but I think that’s where the independent commission can really add some value, where we take part of that conflict away from them by reducing their need to have to make a decision that would be explicitly benefiting them and turning it toward a decision that benefits the state as a whole.”

Parties’ views of the new process

Members of the commission were appointed by both Republican and Democratic leaders, with Gov. Spencer Cox naming Facer as chairman. The GOP appointees were Bishop, Hillyard and Baker, while the Democrats chose Durham, Jones and Thorne.

Jeff Merchant, chairman of the Utah Democratic Party, is looking forward to the new process.

“I am excited to see Utah’s first-ever independent redistricting commission finally take form,” Merchant said. “I hope the commission takes this role in representing Utahns seriously and defends its mission: To stop gerrymandering, to ensure fairness and to build democracy in our state.”

Merchant was worried that only Democratic leadership took pains to appoint commissioners from diverse backgrounds instead of just long political careers as qualifications.

“I hope each commissioner understands they represent Utahns, not political parties. This isn’t about Republicans, and it isn’t about Democrats — it’s about better democracy, which includes many voices and promotes representation of all,” said Merchant.

The head of the state Republican Party offered confidence in the process to redraw political boundaries.

“As a state party, we are pleased that so many well-known Utahns with experience and integrity have been appointed to the commission. While the Utah Legislature has authority over the redistricting process under our constitution, they have wisely made it known that they will seek input from the public, just as they did during the last redistricting process,” Utah GOP Chairman Derek Brown said.

“We have complete confidence the Utah Legislature will oversee another fair redistricting process — one taking into account the phenomenal growth that our state has experienced during the last decade,” Brown said.