Robert Gehrke: It’s not that legislators don’t hear voters, it’s that they don’t care

Robert Gehrke

Republican legislators have decided to tinker with the 2018 Better Boundaries ballot initiative, but perhaps “gut” is a more accurate term.

The aim of the initiative is to create a nonpartisan commission to make nonbinding recommendations to the Legislature as to what boundaries would make for the most representative legislative and congressional districts, from a partisan basis and a racial standpoint.

As you’ll recall, it is the third time the Legislature has rewritten voter initiatives. First it was medical marijuana, then it was Medicaid expansion. To their credit, they didn’t just take the more heavy-handed approach and repeal the measures altogether. Indeed, medical marijuana is legal in Utah and the state reluctantly expanded Medicaid, after other attempts at “expansion lite” were rejected by the Trump administration.

But the constant meddling, coupled with the Legislature’s wildly unpopular and ultimately ill-fated tax reform fiasco, raises obvious questions of whether or not they listen to voters at all.

Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, who is sponsoring the Better Boundaries overhaul (or possibly mugging, we shall see) tried to defend the Legislature by making this point: Even though a majority of voters voted for the initiative, the redistricting proposal was rejected in most legislative districts.

What he proved is how broken the current system is and how, as a result, an untold number of voters are deprived of their vote — the exact problem Better Boundaries sought to cure.

Think about it: If a majority of voters in the state vote one way and the results by senate district are markedly different, then there is a fundamental problem with the districts not being representative of the voters.

Bramble’s contention is that the initiative needs to be amended because it says the commission “shall not gerrymander” but doesn’t define what gerrymander means and, after a year of negotiations, Better Boundaries and the Legislature couldn’t come to an agreement on how to define it in law.

In fact, the word “gerrymander” doesn’t appear anywhere in the voter-approved initiative.

What it actually says is the commission “shall use judicial standards and the best available data and scientific statistical methods, including partisan symmetry” when judging whether the districts are constitutional, compact, contiguous, avoid splitting communities, and do not favor a specific candidate or party.

“Partisan symmetry” is a term used since at least 1997 and refers to a common sense principle that the number of votes for a party statewide should be at least roughly reflected in the portion of seats that party holds in a legislative body.

There are, obviously, wildcards. Maybe you get a bad candidate in a couple districts and you see some deviation, but generally you should end up pretty close. But to take “partisan symmetry” out of the bill is to remove Better Boundaries’ beating heart and stomp it into the ground.

In 2018, as my colleague Benjamin Wood reported, Republicans won 62% of the votes in state House races but hold 79% of the House seats. If you see that trend repeated over several election cycles, as nerdy Jeff Foxworthy would say, “You might have [partisan asymmetry indicating] a gerrymander.”

You get to a gerrymander by “packing and cracking” voters — packing groups into certain districts and cracking, or splitting, them into districts where they are sure to be minorities — which leaves you with very safe Republican and very safe Democratic seats, and not much in the middle, which is what we’ve seen in Utah.

In the 358 state legislative races since 2012 — the last time we saw candidates run in new district boundaries — there have been 19 state House races that I would consider competitive, decided by five points or less, and not a single state Senate race in that margin.

I’m not saying every seat could or should be competitive. It is a Republican-dominated state. But the districts could be fair.

This matters now, as the every-10-year census is taken and new districts drawn for the 2022 races.

And, it turns out, there are really clean, really simple ways to draw districts free from political bias and, unsurprisingly, it requires removing the politicians.

North Carolina recently had to redraw its congressional maps because, despite having a nearly even partisan split, Republicans controlled 10 of the 13 congressional seats. The courts said that was an unconstitutional gerrymander because it cost Democrats several seats in Congress and violated equal representation principles.

As part of that case, Jonathan Mattingly, chairman of the mathematics department at Duke University, created an algorithm to generate tens of thousands of maps, more than 20,000 of which included race data, and scored them based on the partisan data.

What he ended up with are maps that reflect the makeup of the state to an extraordinarily precise degree. Politicians didn’t end up choosing the best map he produced, but they chose one that was a lot better than they had before.

We can do the same thing in Utah, if the Legislature simply butts out and lets the Better Boundaries initiative run its course.

But I suspect they won’t do it. Not because they don’t hear what voters are saying, but because they don’t care — and as long as they get to draw their own safe districts, they don’t have to care.

Last week, a UtahPolicy/KUTV poll found that 62% of Utahns believed that, if they contacted their legislator on an issue, that lawmaker would pay very little or no attention at all to what they had to say.

Whatever they end up doing, voters should remember it come November. And they should remember what was done to medical marijuana. And they should remember what was done to Medicaid expansion. And they should remember the tax reform that was shoved down our throat.

More than anything, they should remember to register and vote.