OGDEN — Neil Hansen, the former Utah House representative from District 9, has his doubts about the redistricting process 10 years ago, after the 2010 census.
As he sees it, the state’s Republican-dominated legislature at the time redrew the district’s boundaries to benefit Republicans. He’s a Democrat who held the House post for six terms until losing in 2010 to Republican Jeremy Peterson — actually a year before boundaries were redrawn. The shift, finalized in 2011, aimed “to make sure Democrats did not have any voice north of Salt Lake,” Hansen maintains.
Of course proving such claims is tough and state redistricting guidelines from 2001 underscore that point.
“Current case law does not establish significant criteria to evaluate whether or not a plan drawn by the Legislature could be challenged as ‘partisan gerrymandering.’ To prove a partisan gerrymandering claim, at minimum, a plaintiff must prove ‘discriminatory intent’ and ‘discriminatory effect,’” read the guidelines. Gerrymandering is manipulation of a political district’s borders to benefit a political group or party.
At any rate, as the decennial redistricting process lurches forward, tapping 2020 Census Bureau data when released, some Weber County Democrats are decrying the current state of political boundaries here. An Independent Redistricting Commission will take part in the process for the first time this year thanks to passage of Proposition 4 in 2018, and the body’s seven members — four picked by Republican leaders, three selected by Democrats — were named last week.
“Weber County is heavily gerrymandered,” charged Zach Thomas, chairperson of the Weber County Democratic Party. He singled out District 9, saying it “takes a lot of inner-city Ogden and mixes it with heavily conservative Roy and West Haven, even though the needs and makeup of those two demographics are vastly different.”
Prior to redistricting in 2011, according to Hansen, District 9 covered southern and western Ogden, with a small section of Roy.
Kathie Darby, another Democrat who unsuccessfully vied two times for the District 9 seat, in 2016 and 2018, echoed Hansen’s and Thomas’ criticism of the District 9 boundaries. Furthermore, like Thomas, she noted that Ogden — Weber County’s biggest and, arguably, bluest city — is divvied among several Utah House districts, Districts 7, 8, 9 and 10. “Why does the city of Ogden have four different districts?” Darby wonders.
Hansen maintains that the city is quartered to dilute the Democratic vote here. Underscoring the dominance of Democrats in Ogden relative to the rest of Weber County, Democrat Joe Biden beat Republican Donald Trump in presidential voting last November in the city by a 54.5%-45.5% margin. Trump beat Biden in the county as a whole by a 61.8%-38.2% margin, Weber County Elections Office data shows.
“Ogden city is more or less left in the dark,” Hansen said.
On the GOP side in Weber County, maybe not surprisingly, there isn’t the same sort of outcry. Of the four Utah House districts containing parts of Ogden, three are held by Republicans: Ryan Wilcox of Ogden in District 7, Steve Waldrip of Eden in District 8 and Calvin Musselman of West Haven in District 9. Rosemary Lesser of Ogden holds the District 10 post, the only Democrat in the Utah Legislature outside of Salt Lake County.
“I don’t see a big problem in Weber County,” said Lacy Richards, chairperson of the Weber County Republican Party. “The boundaries of (District) 9 aren’t that strange to me.”
Musselman, the District 9 officeholder and a Republican, acknowledges the questions some have about his district’s boundaries. But he didn’t draw them up.
“I recognize that it has a quirky boundary and probably should be cleaned up,” he said. But the voters selected him and, the diversity of District 9 notwithstanding, he can identify with the more working-class elements of the area, like those living in the portion of the district in central and western Ogden. “I understand the blue-collar workforce because I’ve lived in it and worked in it,” he said.
For his part, Ogden Mayor Mike Caldwell doesn’t feel short-changed by Weber County’s legislative delegation. One of the three senators serving Weber County, Sen. Ann Millner, a Republican, lives in Ogden and another, Sen. Gregg Buxton of Roy, works for the city of Ogden. “I feel like, honestly, we have one of the strongest voices at the state capital because of the representation,” Caldwell said.
Given population changes, the district boundaries in Weber County and the rest of Utah will likely face adjustment as part of redistricting, likely to gain steam starting in the late spring or summer. The Independent Redistricting Commission that’ll help with the process is designed to lend transparency to the process.
The Utah House and Senate, both dominated by Republicans, will have ultimate say, however, which gives Hansen pause. Though the independent commission may propose one thing, he wonders whether whatever plan or plans they put forward will stick.
Will the independent body’s proposals survive, he asked, “or will the majority party change things basically to benefit themselves?”