Attorneys for the Utah Legislature pushed back against a lawsuit claiming the redistricting process was rife with unconstitutional gerrymandering in a motion to dismiss last Monday.

Filed in March, the lawsuit asks the courts to overturn Utah’s new congressional map and give an independent redistricting commission the power to create political boundaries going forward.

Utah is one of 24 states where groups are suing over newly drawn voting districts — some, like the Beehive State, are accused of partisan gerrymandering.

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Others, like Louisiana, Georgia, North Carolina, Mississippi, Texas, North Dakota or Alabama, say the maps were racially motivated and are diluting minority votes despite census data pointing to growth among Black, Latino and Pacific communities.

“We have seen a lot of states — North Carolina, New York, Maryland, Ohio and Kansas are all examples of active litigation based on partisan gerrymandering,” said Katie Wright with Utah-based Better Boundaries, which is not listed as a plaintiff but did fundraise for legal fees.

The motion to dismiss is the latest development in a yearslong saga that started in 2018 with the passage of a ballot measure to establish an independent redistricting commission. In November, Utah lawmakers instead approved their own maps. About 24 hours later the Legislature accepted them during a special session.

Utah redistricting: Despite cries of cracking communities, lawmakers select their own maps over independent ones

The plaintiffs, who include the League of Women Voters and Mormon Women for Ethical Government, argue lawmakers are violating the constitution by denying voters representation and a free and fair election. They ask that the current maps be thrown out and lawmakers draw new districts before the 2024 elections.

In the motion to dismiss, lawyers argue the claims “boil down to a political disagreement over how congressional boundaries should be drawn.”

“Plaintiffs would transform the highly political task of drawing congressional boundaries into a judicial exercise based on illusory standards of political equality in a highly unequal partisan landscape,” the motion reads.

The Legislature’s attorneys point to the state constitution, which directs lawmakers, not the courts, to draw maps. They also argue that the constitution “does not prohibit drawing districts in a way that may impact the political power of a political party,” and that lawmakers completed their “legitimate objective of ensuring that congressional districts contain both urban and rural areas.”

Lawmakers received hundreds of emails in support of the independent redistricting commission. Why didn’t they listen?

“The Legislature is trying to stop Utahns from having their day in court. We will keep fighting to ensure that every Utahn lives under fair maps and can pick their own politicians, instead of the other way around,” Wright said.

“The plaintiffs are not asking for a different partisan outcome, but a neutral political outcome,” Wright said.

Utah Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson are among the defendants.

How other states are challenging voting maps

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, there are currently 49 pending redistricting cases at either the trial or appellate levels across the country.

In both Democratic and Republican majority states, groups say lawmakers are guilty of “packing and cracking” — diluting voters of a certain party by either cramming them into a single district or spreading them out over multiple districts.

Ohio, New York, Michigan, Nevada, Kentucky and Utah are among 16 states where litigation over partisan gerrymandering is ongoing.

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

Other lawsuits allege the “packing and cracking” is racially motivated, and is a violation of Section 2 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

“Virtually all of the country's population growth has been among those identifying” as a minority, said Josh Cohen, who moderated a webinar Tuesday that featured lawyers from seven states engaged in racial discrimination suits.

Census data shows that racial and ethnic minorities represent more than 40% of the population, Cohen said, but “these populations aren't represented in these new maps, they're deliberately carved apart.”

That includes states like Texas, says Thomas Saenz, the president and general council of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which is currently suing the state over alleged discriminatory districts.

The 2020 census granted Texas two new congressional seats. Around 50% of the state’s population growth in the last decade has been among Latino communities, but under the new maps, the two seats are in majority white districts.

“The Latino community saw its ability to elect candidates of their choice diminish,” said Saenz.

What’s happening in Texas, attorneys say, is a microcosm into much of the South.

Alabama has one of the largest Black populations in the country per capita but rarely elects Black politicians in statewide races.

Despite being 37% of the population, according to census data, most of the Black voters in Mississippi are confined to a single voting district, which the NAACP calls “a racial gerrymander.”

In Georgia, most of the recent growth is among minority communities, “nevertheless Georgia’s redistricting plans do not reflect the growth of populations of persons of color whatsoever,” said Ezra Rosenberg, the co-director of the Voting Rights Project for the Lawyers Committee of Civil Rights Under Law.

“The fight against these redistricting maps is part of the greater fight against those that are trying to rig our democracy,” Rosenberg said.