Voters in Utah will have a rare opportunity this November to improve our democracy by approving an independent redistricting commission to help draw political boundaries in our wonderful state. The group behind this effort, Better Boundaries, has a simple goal: to end gerrymandering. The premise behind the goal is also simple — voters should pick their politicians; politicians shouldn’t pick their voters.
As called for in the U.S. Constitution, every state redraws its political districts every 10 years after the federal census. In Utah, that process is currently performed by our state Legislature. The Better Boundaries initiative leaves final action with the Utah Legislature, but the initiative improves the process through the creation of an independent redistricting commission that recommends maps to the Legislature, together with rules and an open process for redistricting.
Why the need for redistricting reform? There is an inherent conflict of interest and bias when legislators, who directly benefit from how the boundaries are drawn, have the unilateral discretion to determine “their” district boundaries. It is natural for a legislator to draw a boundary that benefits that legislator personally and politically.
These shenanigans, known as gerrymandering, have a rich history going back to the early days of our nation. In recent decades, however, gerrymandering has reached new and alarming heights primarily due to increasingly sophisticated computer mapping and big data. Some experts refer to the current maps we are living under as the most extreme gerrymanders in history.
Today, our democratic institutions often feel separated from popular will and consequently are no longer as effective in solving our collective challenges. Gerrymandering separates politicians from the will of the people and harms our government institutions, the fairness of the system and our very democracy. The late President Ronald Reagan understood this when he called for “an end to the antidemocratic and un-American practice of gerrymandering.”
The Better Boundaries initiative is being pursued to address this problem. A Utah citizen ballot initiative, permitted under the Utah Constitution, is no small undertaking. To get on the ballot, a grass-roots effort was required to gather at least 113,143 signatures from 26 of the 29 Senate districts. Better Boundaries was successful because over 190,000 Utahns saw the need for redistricting reform.
The Better Boundaries initiative resulted from careful analysis and draws from the experience of 18 other states that have instituted various versions of independent redistricting. A politically balanced, seven-member commission would use standards intended to thwart gerrymandering. For example, the commission would be limited in considering incumbent addresses and partisan affiliation. Its recommendations would go to the Legislature for enactment. The Legislature would vote the recommendations up or down. If the Legislature chooses to reject the commission’s recommendations, it would have to come up with its own maps following the same standards and transparency requirements of the Utah redistricting statute. If residents feel the standards are not met, a challenge in the courts is possible.
Utah’s current redistricting system has brought an incredible skewing of boundaries as legislators have put their own personal desires ahead of the interests of communities. Numerous cities and towns have been split apart. For example, Holladay, a city of 30,000 people, needs to convince two members of Congress, two state senators and four state House members of its position to be represented at the state and federal levels of government. Noncompetitive races are also a hallmark of gerrymandering. In Utah, since the last redistricting efforts, 27 legislative races per year have gone uncontested; in the past 10 years, an average of eight seats were uncontested. Noncompetitive races lead to a lack of accountability, and, unfortunately, they are the new normal in Utah elections.42 comments on this story
Better Boundaries is not intended to address the partisan makeup of Utah; we are a majority Republican state and that partisan makeup will remain regardless of what happens with Better Boundaries. But with boundaries drawn to reflect communities of interest, not personal political gain, we will have a more representative democracy. Elections will be more competitive, elected officials will be more responsive to the broad will of their constituents, and people will feel their vote counts, thus increasing voter participation and strengthening our democracy.
In the months leading up to the November election, voters will have an opportunity to consider the merits of Better Boundaries. Seldom is there an opportunity for the voting public to institute a change to our laws that helps move us toward a better-functioning democracy. The Better Boundaries initiative represents such a rare opportunity.