SALT LAKE CITY — Will it be a donut hole or a slice of pie?
The shape of U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson's district is among the top considerations for state legislators getting ready to undertake the every-10-years ritual of redistricting, this time with a fourth congressional seat.
The yet-to-be appointed committee will have to decide whether the conservative Democrat's 2nd District should center on Salt Lake County or be one of four wedges dipping into Utah's population base along the Wasatch Front.
Census numbers released Thursday made clear that Republicans will have more ammunition than ever to redraw the boundaries — as well as those for the state House, Senate and school board — however they want.
Despite Matheson's ability to hold on to a conservative seat since 2001, when he was saddled with 14 rural counties in eastern and southern Utah, observers say it will be possible this time around for Republicans to draw up four winnable congressional seats.
In part, that's due to solid population growth in Salt Lake suburbs and other conservative areas. Utah County grew 40 percent in the 2000s, and Washington County grew 55 percent, the most of any county in the state.
Legislators will set up a committee to draft redistricting proposals and hold public hearings throughout the state over the spring and summer. In 2001, it was comprised of 15 House members (four were Democrats) and five senators (two were Democrats).
"It's going to be fair, it's going to be open and we're going to take input from anybody who wants to offer it," said Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville. He has appointed Sen. Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, to chair the committee, which will start its work in April.
An initiative to create an independent redistricting commission failed to make it to the ballot last year. Waddoups said the Legislature may create a tool on its website to allow citizens to draw up their own proposals.
Final redistricting bills will be considered during a special session in September or October. It was rocky process the last time around, with Democrats threatening lawsuits after they felt their Republican colleagues drew boundaries unfairly.
"Whatever they do, I'm sure they'll be criticized," said Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics. He noted that making Matheson's district more conservative would make the other three districts somewhat less safe for Republicans.
On the other hand, packing Democratic voters into one district could make a liberal primary challenge to Matheson, possibly from former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, more likely — another result the GOP does not want.
Waddoups said he would like all four congressional districts to include both urban and rural areas — the pie shape — so that each U.S. House member could advocate for state control of Utah's valuable natural resources.
One consequence of the 2001 effort didn't emerge until last month, when Rep. Craig Frank, R-Cedar Hills, realized he didn't live in his own district — and about 2,500 residents had been voting in the wrong district for 10 years due to a flawed county map. Frank ultimately had to vacate his District 57 seat.
State elections director Mark Thomas said that shouldn't happen this time, since all of the state's county clerks now use a statewide voter-tracking database that will automate the process of drawing precinct maps. The lieutenant governor's office is now "intimately involved" in verifying that each map is correct, Thomas said.
Utah sued the U.S. Census Bureau when it fell just short of a fourth congressional seat in 2000, saying overseas Mormon missionaries should be counted. U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop said Thursday he plans to introduce legislation in the coming weeks to make sure they are included.
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