SALT LAKE CITY — A new initiative was filed Thursday that would create a bipartisan independent commission to recommend changes to legislative and congressional district boundaries to lawmakers during the once-a-decade redistricting process.
"With the way the process works in Utah today and has been working, so many people feel disenfranchised, that their vote doesn't count," said Ralph Becker, co-chairman of Better Boundaries and a former Democratic Salt Lake City mayor.
The other co-chairman of the initiative drive, Republican Jeff Wright, said change is needed even though the GOP holds a supermajority in the Utah Legislature, as well as the state's U.S. House and Senate seats.
"Both parties are guilty," Wright said. "And I think the current system is very corrosive. This is a bipartisan effort to empower, to keep communities together and to have more responsive government."
After the census occurs every 10 years, it's up to the Utah Legislature to redraw legislative and congressional districts to reflect population shifts, a process known as redistricting.
The initiative would set up an independent commission to propose new boundaries.
Lawmakers would be required to vote on the proposal from the seven-member commission, appointed by the governor and legislative leaders of both parties. If the commission's proposal is rejected, lawmakers must produce a written explanation.
Redistricting standards set by the initiative include prioritizing municipal over county boundaries, preserving communities of interest and traditional neighborhoods, and a prohibition on using partisan data and incumbent addresses.
House Speaker Greg Hughes' chief of staff, Greg Hartley, said in a statement that "redistricting is a fundamental duty" of elected lawmakers that's spelled out in the Utah Constitution.
"An initiative to create an advisory committee does not override or bypass the Constitution simply because some may not like the outcome" that results from the legislative process, Hartley said.
"The purpose of this process is to have an open and public discussion, gather input and come to a consensus based on information and research through a bipartisan committee that puts recommendations before the entire legislative body," he said.
But Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, welcomed the initiative after years of failed attempts by herself and other lawmakers to pass legislation creating an independent redistricting commission.
"I don't think it's going to be moved through the legislative process. We've tried," she said. "This is one of those situations where the public is ahead of where the public officials are."
Chavez-Houck said she especially appreciates a provision making it clear that individuals have the right to take the state to court to halt a plan that fails to abide by the standards set in the initiative.
"It gives more teeth to the process, which I like," she said, calling the initiative more ardent that previous attempts at legislation. "That's always been part of our concern with the fact this would just be an advisory commission."
Utah has been seen as an example of gerrymandering, a term that refers to drawing districts for elected offices to give one political party an advantage in as many races as possible, while limiting the chances of the opposition to as few races as possible.
Following the 2010 Census, Utah gained an additional seat in Congress but lawmakers split the state's Democratic stronghold, Salt Lake County, among three of the now-four congressional districts that all include rural counties.
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said he expects the GOP-dominated Legislature to "jealously guard" its power over redistricting.
"What Republicans have tried to do is draw districts that disempower Democrats and that make districts as safe as they can for Republican officeholders," Karpowitz said. "The challenge is, even though Salt Lake is a reliably Democratic city, we have no Democratic representative."
Becker said "it remains to be seen" whether the independent commission would recommend new boundaries that would keep much of Salt Lake County together after the 2020 Census.
Wright, who served as national finance director for former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s 2012 presidential bid, said the initiative effort "isn't about outcome as much as it is about process."
The initiative was filed Thursday morning with the lieutenant governor's office. Once it has been approved to advance, Better Boundaries will have to hold at least seven public hearings around the state before circulating the petitions.
Backers will have to collect more than 113,000 voter signatures from at least 26 of the 29 state Senate districts by next April to qualify for a place on the November 2018 ballot.
There are already two initiative drives underway: Our Schools Now seeks to raise state income and sales tax rates to bring in more money for education; and the Utah Patients Coalition wants to legalize the use of medical marijuana.