OGDEN — Pending the results of signature gathering over the next seven months, Utah voters could have the opportunity to change the way the state’s congressional and legislative boundaries get redrawn every 10 years.
Utah’s Constitution currently delegates that task to state lawmakers, done after the U.S. Census distributes the latest population data.
But a group called Better Boundaries hopes to loosen the Legislature’s grip on how and where those lines are drawn. The campaign’s co-chairs include Republicans Jeff Wright and Blake Moore along with Democrats Ralph Becker and Karen Shepherd.
“The primary thrust of what we’re trying to accomplish — and why this initiative is so important both to us and to you — is that fundamentally in a democracy, voters should be choosing their politicians, politicians should not be choosing their voters,” Better Boundaries Campaign Manager Andrew Roberts told a small crowd gathered in Weber State University’s Wildcat Theater Monday night.
The forum, co-hosted by the American Democracy Project, the Weber County League of Women Voters and Weber State University’s Student Association, offered attendees the chance to be among the first to sign petitions that after statewide distribution could gather enough support to put redistricting changes to voters in November 2018.
The initiative’s total cost could be about $1 million, according to the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget. But Roberts said their own projected figures range from $70,000 to $500,000.
Since it takes a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to amend the state Constitution, the ballot initiative would provide a workaround and install a 7-member independent advisory commission and a clear set of rules to ensure redistricting is accomplished logically and equitably.
State lawmakers would still have the final say to accept or reject the commission’s recommendations and their decision would be subject to a gubernatorial veto.
According to Roberts, 17 states already have independent redistricting commissions.
Roberts explained the current process by which Utah lawmakers determine political boundaries: The majority and minority leaders of the Senate and House of Representatives appoint representatives from their caucuses to serve on a committee. The committee then works with the Office of Legislative Research and Counsel to try to satisfy certain requirements. Maps are ultimately drawn up that go to the entire House and Senate for votes. Once approved, the new lines head to the Governor for approval or veto.
The goal is to equalize the number of voters per district as much as practically possible, to have contiguous district boundaries, to keep cities and counties largely intact and to preserve neighborhoods and communities of interest.
But instead, some states have succumbed to gerrymandering, a term coined in 1812 that refers to manipulating of boundaries to favor a political party or socioeconomic class.
And computing advances and the advent of big data have opened the door for political gamesmanship to reach new heights — or depths, depending on perspective.
“Now you have big data and super computers that can crunch these numbers,” Roberts said of the boatloads of data that chart how voters think and will likely vote. “They can look at trends that occur in populations . . . and at past election results,” and by juxtaposing sets of data, gauge how people will vote and then draw lines accordingly to benefit their own interests.
To illustrate the problem of gerrymandering in Utah, Roberts noted that between 2006 and 2010 the state averaged eight uncontested legislative races in three election cycles. But following 2011’s redistricting, that average rose to 27 uncontested legislative races.
“If there are 27 races across the state where the incumbent seems so invulnerable that nobody steps up to offer a competition of ideas, you can bet there’s going to be a lot of people in those 27 districts who don’t feel it’s worth showing up to vote. And when people don’t vote, democracy doesn’t thrive,” Roberts said.
While that appears to be problematic in terms of polarization and accountability, Roberts also voiced concern about Utah’s 15 cities that are divided into two or more congressional districts: “You’ve got a line right down Main Street in Moab,” a city of roughly 5,300 residents.
Layton resident Tharen Blue, a military veteran who moved to Utah 18 years ago, attended Monday’s event in hopes of seeing some electoral change on Utah’s horizon. She was one of about three dozen attendees.
[jpg=Layton resident supports redistricting initiative]
“I’m a frustrated voter. I often feel that my vote doesn’t carry much weight, so I’d like to see districts standardized,” Blue said. “I refuse to give up. I vote every time even though I feel marginalized.”
Marcia Thomas of Ogden, a member of Weber County’s League of Women Voters, was among the first to sign the petition Monday.
“And I think with better boundaries, we’ll get more people wanting to run for office and more participation in the voting process,” Thomas said. “. . . so we all win by having more choices and having the people better represented
Utah lawmakers have shown little desire to cede any redistricting authority. In 2017, Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, a Salt Lake City Democrat, sponsored House Bill 411 to establish an advisory redistricting commission, but the measure never got a hearing.
Rep. Merrill Nelson, a Grantsville Republican, sponsored House Joint Resolution 1 to establish certain redistricting standards that would guide lawmakers through the process. That nonbinding resolution cleared the House unanimously, only to die in the 2-4 vote in the Senate Government Operations and Political Subdivisions Committee.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story used an incorrect pronoun for Tharen Blue and a clarification was made to the estimated attendance of the event.