Question: In 2018, Utah voters approved a proposition establishing an independent redistricting advisory commission. In 2020, a commission was appointed, held hearings around the state and issued what many regarded as fair maps.
However, because the state constitution gives the Legislature the authority to reapportion the state, the commission was only advisory. The Utah Legislature promptly threw out the maps and gerrymandered the state to give Rep. Burgess Owens, who represents the 4th Congressional District, what a knowledgeable former Republican official estimated is 3,000 more safe Republican votes than under the former maps.
In the 2020 election, Salt Lake County voted for Joseph Biden over Donald Trump by a 54-43 margin. Biden beat Trump by 60,000 votes in Salt Lake County.
The target population for a U.S. congressional district is 711,000. Salt Lake County population per the 2020 Census was 1,185,238, more than 36 percent of statewide population.
But through a gerrymandering technique known as “cracking,” Salt Lake County, which is majority Democrat, has been split among four congressional districts so that the county and its Democratic voters are effectively disenfranchised. The effect is to make Utah a 100 percent Republican state in which all four congressional seats are destined to go to Republicans.
Is this right? What should be done?
Steve’s first response:
Utah’s initiative laws are quirky, giving the Legislature veto power over initiatives passed by the people. That’s tantamount to having no initiative law at all.
That said, I believe the Legislature got this one right. Utah’s congressional districts are a reasonable geographic reflection of the actual demographics of the state. Every district contains a mix of urban, suburban and rural populations that force our representatives to represent all segments of the population, not just the interests of their urban constituents.
According to Wikipedia, as of Jan. 10, 2022, there were 918,789 registered Republicans in Utah compared to 272,491 registered Democrats. That’s a ratio of approximately 3 to 1.
Democrat registrations equal a little over a third of the number of people needed to make up a single congressional district. If you took all the Independents, over 500,000 of them in Utah, and all the Democrats, and moved them into one district, the combined total would barely make up a single congressional district.
The problem is that in Utah, independents generally vote Republican rather than Democrat, so Democrats would still not have a winnable congressional district.
It has long been the desire of Democrats to carve out what is euphemistically called a “donut hole” district in Salt Lake County containing an overwhelming majority of Democrats, thus guaranteeing them one of Utah’s four congressional seats.
The problem is that this Democrat “super district” would consist of a single urban enclave without any significant suburban or rural constituencies. Would that look “representative” to you, Alison? It looks more like reverse-gerrymandered favoritism to me. In my second segment I’ll tell Democrats a secret that would allow them to completely undo this generational conundrum.
Alison’s first response:
Steve, I have always maintained that we get the best legislation passed when both liberals and conservatives work together, Unfortunately, the Utah Legislature is so dominated by conservative Republicans that they simply have too much power, and sometimes bills are passed that don’t reflect bipartisan input—but even more often, bills are not passed that would reflect a more balanced approach.
For instance, in Utah we have a robust tax surplus, which our Legislature is promptly working to reduce by passing a large tax credit.
Some of those tax dollars could make a huge difference to families, but because, in general, Republicans see issues like affordable housing, health care, childcare and elder care as outside the role of government, our safety net is nonexistent.
Our Legislature plays a minimal role in protecting our environment. You would think that they would notice the toxic blanket of air pollution that blankets the Wasatch Front each winter during the legislative session, or the mess that Utah County is becoming because of a lack of urban planning, or the traffic jams, gravel pits, and hideous billboard displays that obscure beautiful views of the mountains.
Instead of protecting what has been a stunning natural environment, our Legislature perpetually allows it to be destroyed in favor of economic growth.
This is what happens when a state is so dominated by the Republican Party, so do I think that just because there are more Republicans than Democrats, the Legislature should have gerrymandered our state in worse ways, overriding the voters’ mandate to have an independent commission draw up a more fair district map? Absolutely not.
Steve’s second response:
I agree with you on one thing, Alison. I too am unhappy with the way the Legislature handled the tax reduction. Two things should never be taxed: food and medicine. Removing the sales tax on groceries and prescription drugs would proportionally help the poor far more than the rich and is just plain the right thing to do. Only after the tax on these necessities is eliminated should reductions in income tax be considered.
Back to redistricting. The laws and regulations governing redistricting do not mandate satisfying anyone’s political sentiment. Democrats decry Utah’s redistricting maps, while Republicans in states like California, New York and Massachusetts condemn Democrat gerrymandering with equally strong voices.
Gerrymandering is gerrymandering, and gerrymandering is legal, both parties engage in it, and it has been upheld by the Supreme Court many times. I’m actually rather proud that our Legislature at least attempts to make all our districts look representative of the demographic and geographic makeup of the state. In that way, they are applying a politically neutral standard that will not accommodate the partisan reverse gerrymandering you wish for in behalf of your party.
I promised to tell you the secret of how Democrats can untie the Gordion Knot they face with redistricting each decade. It’s not a secret at all. All they have to do is have more registered Democrats in Utah than registered Republicans. All they have to do is convince the majority of citizens that their liberal ideas are more persuasive than the ideas advanced by conservative Republican rascals and win more seats in the Legislature than them. It’s called “democracy,” not favoritism.
Alison’s second response:
It’s ironic that a Republican is lecturing a Democrat on “democracy” vs. “favoritism,” given recent moves to reduce the voting rights of poor minorities in the South and elsewhere across the country. We have our share of that effort here in Utah, since urban-dwelling minorities are the voters whose chances of electing representatives that are sensitive to their needs now have no path to fair representation.
Steve, gerrymandering hurts rural voters as well; when our voting district is combined with a slice of Salt Lake, state services based on population quotas are spread too thin, so we end up with sparsely distributed support located too far away to help us.
Here are the statistics about party affiliation that my research turned up: 54% of Utahns identify as Republican, 30% identify as Democrat, and 16% identify as independent, according to the Pew Research Center.
Keeping in mind that new, more extremely gerrymandered boundaries will make our representation skew further to the political right, let’s look at your “politically neutral standard,” where our districts should reflect the political leanings of their constituencies:
In our state House of Representatives, 23% are Democrats and 77% are Republicans. In our Senate, 21% are Democrats, 79% are Republicans.
The voices of 30% of our citizens, those who advocate for the environment, for the poor, for minorities, for health care, for education, jobs, for help for the elderly and for the mentally ill will have less and less influence in our state as time goes on. In a place like Utah, where people like to think of themselves as being kind and fair, this is shameful.