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Two months ago, we reported on the pressure from Utah for public participation in the redistribution process. Through user-submitted card submissions, community forums, and the work of a newly appointed independent redistribution commission, lawmakers have touted the power of Utah citizens to impact the process. Experts insisted that the majority party would still have a place in the process, but the lawmakers involved maintained that users could make real change at the local level.
But earlier this month, when the Utah Legislative Redistribution Committee released a series of their own new eleventh hour maps that divided Salt Lake County into four parts, the hundreds of working hours and over a million dollars of investment in fair redistribution programs seemed moot. . Their favorite card was released late Friday night for a vote the following Monday, a move according to which civic groups like Better Utah hushed up public comment on the issue. Thousands of Utahns voiced their opposition in the coming weekend, but with little room for redress: the card was adopted last week.
As expected, the map favors the Republican Party, but so do many maps created by the public and the state’s Independent Constituency Commission – maps that were highly rated by the non-partisan Gerrymandering Project of the ‘Princeton University. Rex Facer, chairman of the independent commission, says this card was chosen to secure Republican control until at least 2030, as Utah attracts more Democratic transplants from out of state.
“When our analysts analyzed the data, out of 100,000 [randomly created maps], there was only 0.5% that produced the political results of the legislature, which means it’s guaranteed to have four Republican seats in every election for the next ten years, ”Facer said.
“We never said the legislature was non-partisan,” said Senator Scott Sandall, chair of the legislative redistribution committee, in response to that number. “I don’t think there ever was any idea or suggestion that legislative work wouldn’t include partisanship.”
Much of this result has to do with the convoluted structure of the redistribution in Utah. In 2018, voters chose to create the independent commission through a proposal, but the lawmaker quickly reduced its powers, making it only advisory.
Experts argue that Congress cards are not similar to those on offer
Public participation and the work of the Independent Redistribution Commission have resulted in many maps to look at, but participants don’t think the final lines of Congress look much like theirs.
“There are a few places where we saw a similarity between a line drawn in one district or another, but they were very far apart,” Facer said.
Joshua Ryan, a political scientist at Utah State University who months ago called the process a plating, said it was what one would expect from a majority party that called the shots and deserved careful consideration for its purposes.
The public input and the work of the Independent Redistribution Committee, notes Ryan, “didn’t seem to have played a big part in the way they designed the districts. It might have drawn a lot more attention to the process, which isn’t great for them, but they’re willing to trade the brief negative media attention for the state’s long-term structural advantage.
Senator Sandall insists that some user feedback was taken into account when drawing certain lines, particularly in the western part of the state and in less publicized elections like the school board.
Beyond that, the Independent Redistribution Commission had different priorities than the legislature. The Independent Constituency Commission was not allowed to take into account party statistics or the home addresses of current office holders, while the final cards focused on both.
Facer said his team didn’t use them because they wanted to avoid bias in the cards.
Stuart Hepworth, a University of Utah student who describes himself as a “electoral slicing geek” who submitted multiple cards, felt disheartened but not surprised by the end results of the process. He thinks the cards are gerrymandered for sure, even calling the lines the “Sandall-mander”.
Responding to accusations of gerrymandering, Sandall said packing Democrats into their own district would also be a form of gerrymandering.
Hepworth was particularly unhappy with the insistence on these maps offering a fair split between rural and urban Utah interests.
“The urban-rural divide was nothing more than a pretext for gerrymandering,” Hepworth said, noting that this was also the case in recent cycles. “They casually proved it on the maps of members of the public and of the Independent Constituency Commission which had an urban-rural split and did it better, but would not have been acceptable to them because it would not be. not good for the solidly Republican neighborhoods. “
Final maps divide communities, but it’s legal in Utah
The biggest gripe with the current congressional maps is that they dissect Utah’s major communities into pieces. Salt Lake City was cut into two pieces – Millcreek is divided into four.
“It really seemed like keeping the communities together was not a priority, especially when it came to the communities in Salt Lake County,” Facer said. “Salt Lake City doesn’t need to be divided, and yet it is. I’ve heard people say you’re just trying to protect Salt Lake City, but the answer is no, we are trying to protect all of our cities. The message we’ve heard over and over again, whether we’re in rural Utah or urban Utah, was to keep cities together. “
Senator Sandall says a split was inevitable.
“The lines have to go somewhere, and no matter where you draw a line, one of your neighbors will be on the opposite side,” Sandall said. “At the end of the day, it’s completely impossible to do it statewide and some people are going to be upset.”
Yet many suggestions have divided Salt Lake County into two instead of four.
Sandall insists he’s generally heard good comments in his texts and emails, but hundreds of negative comments on the online chopping portal and the protests at the State Capitol suggest that public opinion is more mixed.
Still, the division of communities is completely legal, USU’s Joshua Ryan said.
“At least at the federal level, the Supreme Court has repeatedly said that states can do whatever they want, besides violating certain federal laws related to race,” Ryan said. “While they should try to keep communities of interest together, it becomes very difficult to define what a community of interest is. There is no constitutional requirement at the federal level that they must do so. I would be shocked if the federal courts intervened.
Those involved in the process are discouraged but grateful for the support
In the end, public participation in the redistribution process appears like a varnish, according to experts. But while this has upset many Utahns and wasted resources, any further backsliding is unlikely, as it is completely legal.
Despite the disappointment, Facer and the Independent Redistricting Commission saw a silver lining in the public outcry that followed.
“My biggest conclusion is how grateful we are for the public support,” Facer said. “I think it shows that they believe what we did was clear, transparent and done without an agenda.”
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