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In our opinion: Setting boundaries

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 19 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

A special session of the Utah State Legislature about congressional redistricting maps Monday, Oct. 17, 2011, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

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Amid all the unpredictability and volatility of politics, it's nice to know some things can be counted on. For example, redistricting: It happens every 10 years — and every 10 years, it's painful and divisive.

This year, Utah added a new district, making the process even more excruciating. If population growth trends continue at the present pace — and there is no reason to believe otherwise — the state will continue to add new districts for the foreseeable future. In other words, it's not going to get any easier.

This year's effort highlights once again the need for an independent, bipartisan commission comprised of, well, anyone other than the very politicians whose careers will be impacted by the maps they draw.

The legislators on the redistricting committee of 2011 made a good-faith effort at openness with a series of meetings designed to solicit public input. Indeed, political observers have called it one of the most open processes in Utah memory.

Yet even from the beginning, the committee's criteria for redistricting was wrongheaded and didn't reflect the preferences of Utah citizens for keeping cities, counties and other communities of interest together. The committee refused to adopt such a goal, and as the process wore on, repeatedly argued that a majority of Utahns wanted congressional districts with a rural/urban mix, even after polling showed this to be untrue.

And the effort at openness was nearly undermined completely by the Utah House when it rejected the committee map and went behind closed doors to redraw boundaries that made seats even safer for Republicans.

One would think legislators would have learned from the fallout of HB477 that the public doesn't like them conducting such business in secret. All the same, GOP leaders emerged with a map far different from earlier versions, only to be forced to retreat behind closed doors again to agree on a map more similar to the one adopted by the Senate two weeks ago.

Closed-door caucuses are not a great anomaly in politics. But they can be problematic in Utah because the Legislature is overwhelmingly Republican, making the power of the GOP caucus nearly synonymous with that of the entire Legislature. Closed-door Republican caucus meetings mean the public is not privy to the debate or rationale for decisions made by the majority in the Legislature.

At the end of the day, the final map is pretty close to the map adopted by the Senate two weeks ago. But giving Democratic legislators only 20 minutes to review the map before voting on it is condescending — not to mention unlikely to diffuse threats of a lawsuit.

Winner-take-all systems of politics, and especially redistricting, can only be stretched so far. An independent commission wouldn't solve everything, but it would be an important step to minimizing legislators' conflicts of interest and being fair to all parties. Now is the time to start reforming the system so that in 10 years we can hope for a less painful, less divisive, or at the very least more fair redistricting process.

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