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One of every six Utah legislative candidates can already declare victory

Gerrymandered? • Running unopposed is a vote of confidence, they say.

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, comments on his bill, HB281, in the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee meeting, Friday, February 19, 2016.

The Nov. 8 elections are nearly eight months away. But winners already have been decided in 16 of Utah's 90 legislative races, or nearly one of every six.

That's because after the filing deadline passed Thursday, only one candidate chose to run in each of those districts. So, unless write-in campaigns emerge, those hopefuls are the election victors.

Those lucky folks include 15 incumbents and one newcomer — 13 Republicans and three Democrats.

The Democrats are House Minority Leader Brian King and Rep. Angela Romero, both D-Salt Lake City, and Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek.

Lucky senators include Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, and Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan.

Unopposed House GOP incumbents are Reps. Mike Noel, R-Kanab; Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara; John Westwood, R-Cedar City; Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork; Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton; Jon Stanard, R-St. George; Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green; Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville; Mike Schultz, R-Hooper; and Ed Redd, R-Logan.

Also unopposed is Republican newcomer Val Potter, who is running for — and now has essentially won — the seat of retiring Rep. Jack Draxler, R-North Logan.

Many of those candidates guess they are unopposed because they are doing a good job — so no one wanted to challenge them. But Utah State University political science professor Michael Lyons sees another likely reason: gerrymandering, or twisting political boundaries to favor a party or incumbents.

"It happens everywhere," Lyons said. "When one party is able to control the redistricting process, as one party has for many years in Utah, they are going to draw the district lines to their advantage…. Honestly, it would be politically irrational not to do it."

He adds, "It's disheartening to the opposition party to run in gerrymandered districts."

But in heavily Republican Utah, why do Democrats have some of the safe, unopposed districts?

"The most effective Republican gerrymander would be one that gives the Democrats the safest districts. It's a technique called packing," Lyons said, where redistricting architects pack as many Democrats as possible into a small number of districts so they don't dilute the Republican vote elsewhere.

Democrats "win by overwhelming margins [in packed districts], and waste votes in the process," he said.

Lyons said evidence of gerrymandering is that Utahns identify as Republicans more than Democrats by a 2-1 margin. That suggests they should hold two-thirds of the legislative seats, but they control 84 percent instead.

"That looks like a gerrymander," he said. "There's not a lot Democrats can do about it right now, except get a ballot initiative that creates a non-partisan districting panel. Democrats have displayed pretty strong interest in that."

Attempts to pass legislation bringing a more independent, non-partisan approach to redistricting have failed repeatedly.

Other signs of Utah gerrymandering include that besides the 16 legislative races where candidates are unopposed, another 10 have all candidates from just one party. In another five, candidates from one major party face only token opposition from a minor party.

All told, parties already are essentially sure of control in 31 of this year's 90 legislative races, or one of every three.

Lyons sees some other reasons for the large number of unopposed candidates. He said in small-population states, "in general you have fewer [politically] ambitious people, fewer people with enough money to run, and less discontent. The state of Utah is prosperous. Most people like the state government."

Okerlund, the Senate majority leader, said, "I hope the reason I am unopposed is that I am representing my district well and they are happy with me." He adds that many people may not want the part-time job that requires frequent travel around his 10-county district, and to Salt Lake City.

Noel, who has a seven-county district in southern Utah, said this is the first time he's been opposed in his 14 years in the Legislature. "It's nice and humbles me that people feel enough confidence in me that I'm doing a good job."

McKell, an unopposed House member, said he honestly doesn't know why he has no challenger. "But I work hard to represent my district, and I think that helps."

Okerlund, Noel and McKell all said that even though they have no opponent, they still plan to campaign — including attending conventions, holding town-hall meetings and posting signs to continue the advantages they have.

But Lyons sees a big problem with so many unopposed races.

"It unquestionably reduces the incentive to vote," he said.

This is one reason, Lyons said, why Utah's voter turnout dropped from No. 1 in the nation in 1968 at 76 percent to second-worst in 2008 with 53 percent. (He excluded 2012 as a measure, saying the presidential candidacy of favorite-son Mitt Romney skewed the result).

Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune Senator Lyle W. Hillyard talks about 1HB 337 Student Right to Active Counsel during Senate Floor Time at the Utah State Capitol Thursday March 10, 2016.

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