New boundaries for legislative and congressional districts in Utah will be drawn up following the 2020 Census, and there is a movement afoot to have that duty taken away from lawmakers and placed in the hands of an independent, bipartisan commission. It’s a proposal we think has merit and should be carefully considered by those concerned about fair representation in government.
Currently, the districts are carved up in a way that suggests — despite protests to the contrary — that political motivations were influential, if not determinative, during the last redistricting in 2012. Salt Lake County, a Democratic stronghold, was whittled into three congressional districts following the 2010 Census. People living in Salt Lake’s urban Avenues district are represented by the same congressman as those living in the no-stoplight town of Ticaboo in Garfield County, near the shores of Lake Powell. Residents of the towns of Blanding and Bluff in the far reaches of San Juan County have the same representative in Congress as do people living in the neighborhoods near the University of Utah.
Trying to coalesce common civic interest and geographical proximity was apparently not a priority for the panel of lawmakers who created the boundaries. They defended their work as a fair-minded exercise in creating districts that are demographically balanced, but the effect was to disperse Democratic Party voters and dilute the party’s influence statewide. Some called it gerrymandering, a term that evokes a prickly response from Republican leaders.
Call it whatever you may, when redistricting is placed in the hands of politicians, the results look different than when done by an independent authority. Utah is not the only place where suspected gerrymandering is visible. There are districts in Maryland and North Carolina that look like a Rorschach test. Republicans and Democrats are equally culpable when it comes to accusations of aligning boundaries with political self-interest.
Now, an organization called Better Boundaries has filed an initiative for a petition drive that would put the question of redistricting by an independent commission on the ballot for Utah voters to consider next year. The movement has bipartisan leadership and is reminiscent of previous efforts in past redistricting periods to inoculate the process from political intervention. We have long supported the concept of vesting the important work of adjusting boundaries in a commission with members nominated by both parties.
The upcoming process may be influenced by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has agreed to review a Wisconsin case in which a lower court held that a Republican-drawn map in that state is the result of an “unconstitutional partisan gerrymander.” A court ruling could affect the way all states go ahead with post-census mapping.
In the meantime, the Better Boundaries initiative will hopefully elevate the issue and trigger a conversation about whether or not the process is best done using criteria that reflect common interest and common sense, as opposed to the common desires of a partisan majority.