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

Published: Thursday, Aug. 27 2015 11:55 p.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.

"That's basically done. I think what you're seeing is pretty much what we want," Waddoups said of the Senate map. He said GOP senators have spent "the last two months' caucuses looking at maps." Their caucus meetings are closed to the public.

The Senate leader said the 29 district boundaries come "really close" to taking into account concerns raised during the committee's public hearings, such as separating some southern Utah communities.

Under the proposal, Democrats stand to lose two of the seven seats they now hold, said Senate Minority Caucus Manger Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake, a member of the committee.

The proposal puts Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero of Salt Lake and Senate Minority Assistant Whip Pat Jones of Holladay, in the same district, he said. And it moves Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake, into the same district as Sen. Dan Liljenquist, R-Bountiful.

McAdams said his understanding is that discussions with the GOP majority about the map are still ongoing.

"We've agreed to talk," he said. "We realize that Democratic districts have not grown as fast as some Republican districts."

House Democrats are in a similar situation, thanks to the same shift in population growth away from the party's Salt Lake stronghold — and their same superminority status. At least one longtime Democratic seat in the city, House District 30, is likely to disappear.

"Democrats have more to lose," a member of the committee, House Minority Assistant Whip Brian King, D-Salt Lake, said. "We can't prevent bad things from happening."

The committee's House chairman, Rep. Ken Sumsion, R-American Fork, just laughed when asked if the new House districts were close to being finalized by the committee.

He said there are issues remaining in both the urban and rural areas of the state, not just in the Salt Lake area. For example, he said, two GOP incumbents could end up in the same Utah County district.

"I didn't know how personal sometimes it would get," Sumsion said of heading the committee. "It's been an interesting process. There are just a lot of self-interests."

The committee is scheduled to meet Aug. 19 to review the redistricting plans submitted by the public, and again on Aug. 22 to work on school board and Senate boundaries.

Sumsion said the committee could settle Aug. 22 on recommendations for school board boundaries, which have received little attention.

There's still work ahead for the committee on the legislative boundaries, but the biggest battle is expected to be over the Congressional districts.

And University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said that debate likely also will be the most political, especially with several legislators already eyeing runs for Congress.

"I don't think that's something the public is going to have a big input on," Burbank said. "It's going to come down to who has the votes, and Republicans have the votes. Democrats don't."

A decade ago, Utah attracted national criticism for what was seen as an attempt to ensure a Democrat couldn’t win the 2nd District by stretching it from Salt Lake through some of the most conservative areas of the state.

That gerrymandering not only failed to prevent Utah's lone Democrat in Congress, Rep. Jim Matheson, from holding onto the seat, it helped him to be seen as a strong contender should he run for statewide office, according to recent polls.

This time, the debate so far has been focused on whether Utah needs a mostly urban congressional district surrounded by much larger rural districts — a so-called doughnut, viewed as the most favorable option for Democrats.

The alternative, widely described as a pizza, would slice the state's urban center into four districts that also would each include rural areas of the state. Diluting urban votes is seen as making it easier for Republicans to win seats.

Waddoups said he expects the final map of the state's now four congressional districts will likely look something like his most recent proposal that puts all of Salt Lake City in a 2nd District that includes much of the rest of the state, but splits Salt Lake, Utah and Davis counties.

He said the public input received by the committee has been repetitive. "Frankly, the amount of input we've gotten so far, it's the same people over and over," Waddoups said. "They're broken records."

What the public really wants, Waddoups said, is for the boundaries to be determined by the lawmakers they elected and trust.

"There is nobody who is closer to the people that those who have been elected by the people," the Senate leader said. "We've done a good job. It's fair and representative of the people. The minority doesn't like it, but the majority does."

Sumsion also defended the process.

"Pretty much every darn map I've drawn, I've put out there. I've been very open," Sumsion said, suggesting criticism comes because if people don't "get exactly what they want, they think the system has run amok."

Once the committee's work is done, however, it could be a different story.

Sumsion said he doesn't expect House leadership to exert a "heavy hand" over what is ultimately approved by the Legislature. "I can't speak for the Senate," he said, "but certainly with the speaker, she has been very open."

He said the critics will be proven right — or wrong — only after the final maps approved by the Legislature are compared to what came out of the public process.

"If it's totally different, yep, they're right," Sumsion said. "But I'm pretty confident there is no secret map out there waiting to get brought forward. At least I haven't seen one."

David Irvine, a member of the Utah Citizens Council, said a cynic "would say they can, at the end, do whatever they were going to do at the beginning and say, 'We've taken all of this public input.' "

So is he cynical about the redistricting effort?

"There's only one answer I can give you," Irvine said. "I can't be cynical. You have to go into this hoping that you can have some influence and help make the process better."

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