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Are Utah’s political districts fair? Democrats call for no more gerrymandering

Salt Lake City Democratic senator says now’s the time to ‘start fresh.’ Republican redistricting chairman says maps will be fair, based on data

Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, is pictured during the 2019 legislative session on March 4.
Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, is pictured during the 2019 legislative session on March 4. Already concerned the Utah Legislature won’t heed independent redistricting recommendations, some Utah House and Senate Democrats on Thursday issued a call to their Republican colleagues with majority control over the process: Be fair.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Already concerned the Utah Legislature won’t heed independent redistricting recommendations, some Utah House and Senate Democrats on Thursday issued a call to their Republican colleagues with majority control over the process: Be fair.

“The partisan gerrymandering that happens in other states and informs much of the process in Utah’s previous redistricting cycles is not appropriate in 2021,” said Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City.

That’s why, Kitchen said, Utah voters approved the 2018 Better Boundaries ballot initiative to “eliminate partisan gerrymandering” and create the new Utah Independent Redistricting Commission to draw Utah’s next set of political boundaries, a process that only happens every 10 years.

That commission, which is aiming to draw Utah’s new political district maps without any political bias, switched to an advisory role for the Utah Legislature after a 2020 compromise that lawmakers struck with Better Boundaries backers to preserve the spirit of the ballot initiative while not overriding the Legislature’s constitutional duties to oversee redistricting.

“Utah is bigger and more diverse than ever,” Kitchen said, citing newly released census data that shows Utah continues to be one of the fastest-growing states in the nation. “We must have better maps than we’ve had in the past.”

That’s why Kitchen said he and other Utah Democrats held Thursday’s news conference to “amplify” the voice of the Independent Redistricting Commission “and encourage everyone in Utah to pay attention to this process over the next few months.”

“When these new maps are delivered to the House and the Senate this November, the Utah Legislature should follow the will of the people by adopting the maps created by the independent commission,” Kitchen said.

“These are the legitimate maps of Utah, not only because the people of Utah voted for them but because they’re created without considering political party or any single politician.”

Kitchen quoted former President Ronald Reagan, calling gerrymandering “a national disgrace.”

“These seats don’t belong to Democrats or Republicans,” he said. “They belong to the voters of Utah.”

The news conference took place at the Millcreek Community Library, 2266 E. Evergreen Ave., in an area of Salt Lake County that’s represented by three congressional districts. Holladay, Millcreek and Murray — all in the same geographical location with similar community issues — are all represented by different members of Congress.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” Kitchen said. “We all know it.”

Even though the Utah Legislature isn’t required to adopt the district maps recommended by the independent redistricting commission, Kitchen and other Utah Democrats, including Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, and Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Sandy, urged their Republican colleagues, who hold supermajority control, to do so.

It’s time for Utah’s political boundaries to be drawn in new ways — not based on existing political boundaries or drawn around incumbents’ addresses, Kitchen said.

“With the independent commission, we have the opportunity to look at this with fresh eyes, and ignore the previous gerrymandered districts and start fresh,” he said.

The independent commission’s members aren’t basing their maps on existing boundaries or incumbents. But the Legislative Redistricting Committee, which is also drafting some map proposals, is considering where incumbents live, according to Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, the House chairman of that committee.

The Legislative Redistricting Committee is made up of 15 Republicans and five Democrats.

Ray chided Kitchen and other Democrats for expressing concerns about fairness before any maps had been drawn.

“Let me draw the first damn map, and then accuse me of cheating,” Ray said. “Obviously they’re scared to death because if you look at just the population numbers from the Census Bureau, they’re in trouble.”

The matter of whether incumbents should be considered for the new boundaries affects all lawmakers and their districts, not just Republicans, Ray said.

“If we draw a map not based on incumbents,” he said, even Democratic senators could be affected. He pointed specifically to Kitchen’s own Salt Lake City district, as well as districts currently represented by Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, and Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross.

Because of “explosive” population growth toward the south end of Salt Lake County and northern Utah County, those incumbents would likely “end up in the same district” if maps are drawn without considering incumbents, Ray said.

“Those seats are going to have to come from somewhere,” Ray said. “The ripple effect is they’re going to come from probably that northern area down, just to make the growth work.”

Kitchen in a post on Twitter earlier this week took issue with basing Utah’s new congressional boundaries on “proportional population change,” saying that creates a “fallacy” that is “used to build new districts based on gerrymandering in 2011.”

“They’re focusing on existing political boundaries,” Kitchen said. “Those boundaries were drawn with partisan focus in mind.”

Ray said legislators will be basing maps on “actual population data,” so “there has to be a shift if you’re going to be fair.”

“Now, if (Kitchen) wants me to gerrymander, then, you know, we can do what he wants to do,” Ray said. “But honestly if they want them fair, well, fair is fair ... I’m just trying to get some fair maps out here for people. I’m not even looking at colors. I’m just trying to get populations balanced, and that’s going to be very hard this year just based on what we’re seeing with the growth we’ve had in Utah.”

Ultimately, Ray said the legislative committee would be taking input from the independent commission. But he made no promises on whether its maps will be adopted.

“We’ll look at the maps that they give to us,” Ray said. “There’s no animosity between us and the commission. I’m excited to see their maps and maps from the public versus our maps. If I could use four maps from the public, I would be stoked. That would be the greatest thing ever.”

The Legislative Redistricting Committee’s next public meeting is scheduled for Sept. 2 at 10 a.m. at the Capitol.

The Utah Independent Redistricting Commission is set to start drawing its set of maps and will hold public hearings on Sept. 3 in Monticello and on Sept. 4 in Heber City.