Drawing boundaries: How much influence will public have on redistricting process?

Published: Sunday, Aug. 7 2011 12:43 a.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Later this month, lawmakers will start making decisions about where the state's legislative, congressional and school board boundaries should be set for the next decade.

Over the summer, the Legislature's Redistricting Committee has held more than a dozen hearings around the state, encouraging Utahns to come up with their own maps using free software available online.

More than 600 Utahns have signed up to try their hand at redrawing the boundaries to reflect the population shifts recorded by the 2010 Census, which gave Utah a new seat in Congress. As of the first week of August, Utahns had used the state's redistricting website to draft 139 valid maps, including more than 100 just for the now-four congressional districts.

Lawmakers, too, have been publicly circulating their own ideas, and the Utah Citizens Council, a bipartisan group made up of longtime civic leaders, is getting ready to release a series of proposals.

But despite the unprecedented level of public involvement — and so many plans already to choose from —  there's still concern among some that Utah will end up with a redistricting plan largely shaped behind closed doors to benefit the politicians in power.

"I think everybody has a good reason to be skeptical that the Legislature will enact a redistricting plan that is in their self-interest," said Michael McDonald, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a principle in the national Public Mapping Project.

McDonald, also a professor of government and politics at George Mason University in Virginia, said Utah lawmakers may turn out to be "wolves in sheep's clothing," when it comes to following through on public input.

"You're really not going to know until you see the map that's produced. There should be a draft map, and ideally, the Legislature should allow the public to make comments," McDonald said.

Instead, lawmakers chose to hold public hearings from May through July without having backed any specific proposals. It's not clear how much input the public will have in what's ultimately considered by the Legislature, expected to approve new maps in a special session this fall.

"They definitely made a show of the process," said Mark Sage, a leader of the failed Fair Boundaries initiative that sought to establish an independent redistricting commission. "Do I trust the Legislature? Not totally."

Sage and other advocates of what they term a fairer redistricting process recently called on lawmakers to listen to their constituents, who said again and again at the public hearings they wanted their communities kept together.

Utahns would have been better served, Sage said, had the committee held the public hearings after narrowing the possibilities to show which direction the redistricting process was headed.

"That would have given more indication of their openness," Sage said, by helping the public "see more clearly what the boundaries are they are looking at and the rational behind them."

Asking the public to draw their own maps is "really a whole lot for people to comprehend," Sage said.

Maryann Martindale, executive director of Alliance for a Better Utah, said after sitting through many of the redistricting meetings, her sense is that many lawmakers haven't been paying attention to the public.

She suspects that's because they already know what they want to do and that the true purpose of the public hearings was  "gauging how energetic the public is and … how much resistance there'd be" to those plans.

A member of the committee, Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said lawmakers have settled at least on a template for the new congressional districts and are more or less finished with the map redrawing state Senate districts.

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