When most people think about gerrymandering in Utah, they think of partisan battles over dicing up liberal Salt Lake County.
I think about family reunions.
Like many Utah families, mine gathers every other year (or so) for potluck and lawn games, catching up and reminiscing. Though we may look to an outsider like a homogeneous bunch — and though we are bound by common values — the daily issues we face couldn’t be more different.
We “city dwellers” on the Wasatch Front struggle with the challenges of rapid growth: outrageous housing costs, horrible air quality and trouble finding skilled workers in a climate of low unemployment.
Our “country” relatives off the Wasatch Front struggle to thrive while job opportunities shrink, area poverty grows and access to top-quality health care feels increasingly tenuous.
At a gut level, the idea that one person in Congress can effectively represent all our needs seems absurd. Yet this is our situation. Relatives in Castle Dale and Sandy are both represented by Rep. John Curtis, while cousins less than five miles away in Holladay have Rep. Mia Love, who also represents family in Mount Pleasant.
It makes no sense. Our current system for creating congressional districts has resulted in four watered-down districts where rural and urban areas are blended in ways that diminish our identities and overlook our needs. In Salt Lake City, it’s difficult to keep track of who your representative is, since a move across town may change everything. In rural Utah, it’s difficult to feel connected to your representative, since they are likely to live far away and have a very different set of life experiences.
The result is bad enough for us on the Wasatch Front, but it’s worse for people in rural counties. According to “Fair Redistricting: A Better Deal for Rural Utah,” a new report from the ABU Education Fund, the rural-urban mix of our districts allows lawmakers to ignore the needs of rural voters.
Here are just two uncomfortable facts from the report:
- A total of 61.3 percent of rural Utahns are not represented at the federal level by a person from rural Utah. Love, Curtis and Rep. Chris Stewart all live on the Wasatch Front, while Rep. Rob Bishop lives up north in Brigham City. Imagine how isolated a voter in Kanab must feel.
- All four Utah representatives voted for the House Farm Bill this past June, which requires recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to spend 20 hours a week working or in a work training program. If even one representative had the needs of rural Utah top of mind, they may have amended the bill to accommodate its lived reality: the jobs aren’t there, and job programs are difficult to access.
Utah Proposition 4, the Independent Redistricting Commission Initiative, is a promising way to address this situation. Rather than leaving districting decisions up to the state Legislature alone, Proposition 4 creates an independent commission that will draw boundaries for the U.S. House, Utah Senate and Utah House and present them to the Legislature for approval or rejection.5 comments on this story
Independent commissions aren’t focused on protecting incumbents, so they have a better track record of drawing boundaries that are geographically compact and keep communities of interest together.
Our current set of mixed rural-urban districts dilutes the voice of rural voters. It’s like holding every family reunion in Salt Lake City, regardless of where your relatives live. Fairness requires a system that values the distinct needs of all Utahns and gives all of us the chance to send someone to Washington who shares our everyday concerns and experiences, no matter where we live.