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Gerrymander: Redistricting is sometimes called Gerrymandering
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A voter’s guide to Proposition 4: redistricting in Utah

This political cartoon drawn by Elkanah Tisdale in 1812 lampooned then-Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry, who signed the bill that created the oddly-shaped district in his state. (Boston Gazette, March 1812).

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah voters have several questions on their ballots that are less about electing a candidate to a specific office, and more about settling important issues – such as Proposition 4, which would create a redistricting commission in the state.

Here’s a guide to the pros and cons behind the proposal.

Proposition 4 explained

Proposition 4 asks voters whether the state should create a seven-member commission whose job would be to recommend the lines for Congressional, legislative and school board districts. If approved, the proposal would also establish how members of the commission are appointed and set up some rules for redistricting in Utah.

Under current law, the legislature is in charge of redistricting but there is no provision about a commission or other independent group to do so. This is usually done every ten years after the federal government completes its census reports and the state has a better picture of how populations have shifted over the last decade. The last census resulted in the addition of a new congressional district for Utah as well as redrawn district lines.

What would a redistricting commission do?

The commission would recommend new district lines for the legislature, Congress and school districts, but it would still be up to the legislature to approve or reject the commission’s recommendations. Additionally, the legislature would still be able to come up with its own redistricting plans, though the commission would have the right to review those plans, and Utah residents could file suit to block a plan that does not hold up to the standards of Proposition 4.

The members of the commission would come from several different places. One would be appointed by the governor and the remaining six would be appointed by leaders of the majority and minority party (three each) in the Utah House and Senate. However, appointees would not be eligible if they had participated in certain types of political activity in the four or five years before their appointment.

Commission members would be required to hold open, public meetings and make sure their recommendations meet the requirements set forth by Proposition 4. Those include:

  • keeping cities, counties or towns together when possible
  • keeping districts “geographically compact” – in other words, all one piece, instead of split up
  • preserving neighborhoods and communities
  • following natural and geographic features
  • when possible, lining up with different types of districts (i.e., the constituents of the 4th congressional district should also be in the same legislative district)

Also, federal law requires districts to be roughly equal in population size, which is why some congressional districts across the country are geographically larger than others.

Constitutional conflicts? Maybe

The state’s election guide on Proposition 4 points out that the proposal may have a couple of conflicts with the U.S. Constitution and the Utah state constitution.

First, it’s unclear whether requiring commission members to have avoided certain types of political activity in the years before their service would violate their rights to free speech and expression, which are protected by both the federal and state government.

Next, there is some concern that involving the chief justice of the Utah Supreme Court in sending redistricting recommendations to the legislature would violate the separation of powers on the state level.

Finally, because the Utah Constitution sets out the manner in which redistricting happens as a legislative function, there is concern that creating the commission may, in fact, violate state law.

What would it cost?

The legislature’s fiscal analyst estimates a cost of $1,015,500 every ten years as census results become available and the commission would need to begin its work. However, in part because of those constitutional concerns on both the state and federal level, the analyst also points out any lawsuits that arise from passage of Proposition 4 could also come with an added expense.

Arguments in favor

Utahns for Responsive Government and Better Boundaries authored the arguments in favor of Proposition 4, available on the state elections website. Co-chairs Jeff Wright, a Republican, and Ralph Becker, a Democrat and former mayor of Salt Lake City, write, “Voters should choose their representatives, not vice versa.”

Becker and Wright argue that the current system benefits politicians rather than the people they represent. They argue the legislature should not have unchecked power to draw these lines without oversight or transparency.

Their statement continues:

Gerrymandering is not new. But in recent years it has gotten out of control. Sophisticated computer modeling allows incumbents to craft districts with a precision the framers of the Utah Constitution could not have foreseen. Incumbents of both parties do this, with the result that Utah is divided into districts that empower politicians, not voters.

Wright and Becker say approving Proposition 4 would address gerrymandering by setting up the independent commission and by requiring it to follow certain rules, such as forbidding the redistricting to either favor or disfavor specific candidates or parties.

Arguments against

Utah Sen. Ralph Okerland, R-Monroe, penned the argument against Proposition 4, saying that the framers of the Utah constitution specifically gave the legislature exclusive power over redistricting and to change that would be to violate the state constitution. He writes that the legislature is the duly elected representative of the people of Utah, which means that by having the legislature draw boundary lines, voters are, in fact, having their say over redistricting.

He continues:

Over the past few redistricting cycles there have been hundreds of redistricting lawsuits in at least 40 states. In that time, not a single successful case has been brought against Utah due to our transparent, fair, and strictly constitutional redistricting process.

Okerland alleges Democrats are squarely behind Proposition 4 in an attempt to create an “overwhelmingly Democrat district insulated from the rest of the state.”

Better Boundaries co-chairs Becker and Wright respond that their effort is bipartisan. They also refute the idea that the state constitution says redistricting is the exclusive job of the legislature, saying the proposition is written carefully to fit within the parameters of existing state law.