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New software lets Utahns propose redistricting plans

Published: Saturday, April 23 2011 5:34 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers start work Monday on the once-in-a-decade job of redrawing the state's legislative and congressional districts to reflect the results of the latest census.

Utahns will be able to participate in the process like never before, thanks to new mapping software that should be available soon to use free of charge through the state's website.

The software will enable citizens to draw up proposed districts without having to painstakingly calculate the impact on the number of constituents in each district every time a boundary is shifted.

That should make it easier to balance the population as required among the 104 state House and Senate districts and now, thanks to the population increase recorded by the 2010 census, four congressional seats.

"It's a complicated thing. But I think it's easy enough," said legislative policy analyst Leif Elder, who tested the new software with the average citizen in mind. "It'll give them a chance to do that and say, 'Here's what I would propose.' I think that's a good thing."

Elder is scheduled to demonstrate a similar software program for lawmakers during the first meeting of the Legislature's Redistricting Committee at 9 a.m. Monday in Room 30 of the House Building at the Capitol complex.

"I think the resources available to the average citizen are so much more than they were 10 years ago," said Gigi Brandt, a League of Women Voters of Utah vice president.

But whether the novelty of being able to map out new boundaries boosts interest in redistricting remains to be seen, she said.

"For some, it won't make any difference," Brandt said. "But I would hope younger people who are more computer savvy, they'll want to play with it."

She said many Utahns lost interest in voting as a result of the last time lawmakers redrew districts, after the 2000 census, and divided communities in setting new legislative and congressional boundaries.

Even the conservative Wall Street Journal accused the state of gerrymandering, citing the 2nd District congressional seat still held by Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah. His district shifted from mainly the Salt Lake area to include large swaths of rural Utah.

"We hope this will be more open," Brandt said of the new redistricting committee. "We are hoping they really do listen to people and they will allow people to participate."

An effort to establish an independent redistricting commission through an initiative petition drive failed last year to generate enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.

But a new group, Represent Me Utah, that includes Republicans, Democrats and independent voters is attempting to keep the pressure on lawmakers, according to co-chairwoman Kelli Lundgren.

"We want to have them keep communities together," Lundgren said. "I think that's the fair and democratic ideal, for every vote to count."

Lundgren said user-friendly mapping software will be welcomed. "I'm excited they are doing that for the public," she said. "But what I would love to see is that they actually use input from it."

The final decision is up to the full Legislature, which is expected to be called into a special session by Gov. Gary Herbert later this year to approve new boundaries.

"In the end, I don't know how optimistic I am," Lundgren said, adding that most of the input the committee receives will likely come from Utahns who "feel more insecure about what they're going to come up with."

Email: lisa@desnews.com

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