EPHRAIM—A bi-partisan committee traveling the state met in Ephraim on Saturday to get input from locals on their task of slicing up the state of Utah in exactly equal portions following the finally released 2020 census data.
Their number one message: They want input from the public and it’s easy to give. Go to the Utah Independent Redistricting Commission’s website (UIRCutah.gov), look at some of the proposed map schemes and comment, or propose your own map. The next message is that they are bound to “make the numbers fit,” and just like carving a Thanksgiving turkey–where everyone wants the prime juicy slice–the portions really do have to be equal.
The commission was authorized by a 2018 statewide initiative. Every 10 years, the legislature redistricts, based on census numbers. The commission confirmed at the outset that they would not make decisions based on any political leanings towards certain political parties or politicians.
The commission is advisory only; they will deliver three final versions of all the maps to the legislature before Nov. 1, a task complicated by the COVID-delayed census results that should have been delivered in April, but which were only received in late August.
The commission mandates are: first, everyone is treated equally. Another way to say that is “one person, one vote.”
The second mandate is that the four congressional districts must have equal populations: 817,504, within a fairly strict range. That’s map No. 1.
Map No. 2 defines senate districts and has 29 districts with 112,814 residents each. Map No. 3 says the 75 house districts must have at least 43,622 residents each. And Map No. 4 says school districts must have 218,108 residents each.
Another requirement is contiguity. For example, the new census shows Sanpete County with 28,437 residents (up just 615 from the 2010 census). That’s too small by itself to make a house district. Sevier County, to the south, has 21,866 (up 1,068 from 2010), but putting them together is more than 43,622, so one or both counties have to be split. The commission must decide how and where to split counties, or even cities, to meet the number requirement, while maintaining contiguous connections. “We are very aware we just will not be pleasing everyone,” Facer said.
Another requirement is reasonable compactness, or avoiding odd shapes or contortions. “We know 70 percent of Utah’s population is in the Wasatch Front, and the rest of Utah’s population is not evenly dispersed at all,” Facer said.
“We will have to trade off some criteria to meet map decisions,” Facer said. “For example, geographical boundaries (rivers, mountains, etc.) as well as man-made barriers, such as streets, highways, etc.”
Communities of interest will also be considered. A community of interest is defined as a group of people in a contiguous geographical area that share common policy interest, whether cultural, religious, social, economic or others that do not necessarily coincide with the boundaries of a political subdivision.
The commission is also taking into consideration, where practical, cores of prior districts, as well as county and municipal boundaries.
The commission sought input from the group at this point, and Sandy Neill, Sanpete County clerk, mentioned that currently, district lines split Sanpete at the North/South School District boundary. She asked if that would be changed.
She also asked about precincts. “For 10 years, we have had precincts with as small a number as 15, and that’s just wrong!” In Axtell, where Neill lives, there are only 30-40 people in the Axtell district. “Please make as few divisions as you can within towns or cities,” she asked.
One of the commissioners responded, “Actually there are precincts with no voters at all, and we will be correcting those situations as we find them.” All the proposed map plans are drafts, and it will be up to the legislature to make the final decisions, but the current maps do not have Sanpete split down the middle.
The commission also mentioned, “We go by people, not registered voters.” For example, the Central Utah Correctional Facility has a large number of people, but they cannot vote. The same situation exists in the Draper prison in Salt Lake County. “The prison qualifies by their numbers to have their own school district. There are just some situations where the requirements just don’t make sense,” Facer said. “Hill Air Force Base and other colleges or large groups of people present similar challenges.”
Kip Hansen, a city councilman for Richfield City, also attended the meeting and made a plea to not split Sevier and Sanpete because Snow College had campuses in both counties. “We believe it makes sense for both those campuses to have the same representation,” he said.
The commission said this is a perfect example of communities of interest. “Thank you for letting us know. If you hadn’t mentioned this to us, we might not have been aware of it,” one commissioner said.
A committee technician, Sariah Morley, explained how citizens or groups could access and make suggestions based on criteria they believe should be considered in the maps. Some communities of interest could be based on religion, language, economics, education, environment, ethnicity, industrial communities, local governments, neighborhoods and more.