The Utahns tasked with divvying up the state into new voting boundaries are up against time as they grapple with late data and flagging public trust.
Utah’s Independent Redistricting Commission met Tuesday evening to discuss its plans moving forward.
The commission is tasked with redrawing congressional, state Senate, state House and school board boundaries throughout Utah based on 2020 census data. Proposed maps are supposed to be completed by fall so the Legislature can review and approve new precincts before political candidates start collecting signatures in January.
The legislature has the final say on how maps will be drawn.
The U.S. Census Bureau has been months delayed in delivering its data, which was supposed to come in December. Instead, congressional information was released Monday, while state-level data is expected to come out by September.
Map-making on a condensed timeline will be challenging. The final maps the commission creates can’t just work with census data, they also have to make sense in the real world.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Commissioner Jeff Baker gave a presentation about issues that arose during redistricting in 2011. He showed a neighborhood in Davis County where some houses would have been split between precincts if congressional lines followed census lines exactly.
“We had to do some cleanup work on that,” he said.
Baker said he hopes cleanup legislation won’t be necessary this time.
Davis County also has four precincts with no voters in them. Baker said the commission should strive to avoid low- or no-voter precincts.
He suggested that the lines be drawn sequentially, i.e., congressional lines followed by state ones, rather than working on all the maps at the same time. He also proposed using permanent, geographical features as district boundaries.
The voting lines will be based on population, not numbers of voters.
Former Rep. Rob Bishop, who is a member of the commission, said the 2020 census data is already inaccurate because of COVID-19 deaths and people who have moved since the census finished. He said other people who don’t vote, like children and service members at Hill Air Force Base who vote in other states, will also create a discrepancy between the boundaries and actual voters.
“The numbers are wrong, even today the numbers are wrong,” he said. “We just have to live with that.”
Gaining public trust could also pose a problem for the commission. Some commission members were selected by Democrats and others by Republicans with the goal of having a nonpartisan group, but allegations of bias have already come up.
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeffrey Merchant objected to Bishop and former Sen. Lyle Hillyard being picked by House and Senate Republican leadership. Merchant said they “bring nothing more than rank partisanship to the table.”
Brigham Young University professor Rex Facer, who was named as commission chair by Gov. Spencer Cox, said the commission’s task is more significant than just drawing maps. Their work also must be transparent, he said.
Commissioner Karen Hale thinks the public will be satisfied with the process if it is inclusive as possible.
Hillyard said he thinks making the public happy is an “impossible task.”
“Everybody’s going to look at it [and say], ‘How does it impact my district? If my district wins, then I like it. If my district doesn’t for any reason, I don’t,’” Hillyard said.
Commissioner and Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine Durham said she agrees with Hillyard in that you can’t please everyone, but she thinks the commission will get some credit from the public if it delivers a rational and nonpartisan approach to redistricting.
“I think our mission to some extent is to increase the faith of Utahns that this really thorny subject can be approached by people of goodwill, who don’t have dogs in the fight in terms of the results,” she said.