By 3-1 margin, Utahns favor independent commission to redraw political boundaries

Poll • Democrats, Republicans support tasking an independent commission with redistricting, although gerrymandering has likely helped GOP.

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune "I remain hopeful that I'll have the opportunity to continue serving as mayor," said Ralph Becker, declaring the race too close to call for the evening. Becker, the two-term incumbent thanked all of his campaign supports and staff in the Salt Lake City mayoral race against former legislator Jackie Biskupski, Tuesday, November 3, 2015.

Amid widespread allegations of past gerrymandering, Utahns, by a 61 percent to 22 percent margin, favor having an independent commission redraw political boundaries in once-a-decade redistricting.

That includes support by a plurality of Republicans — even though gerrymandering likely helped their candidates — and by big majorities of Democrats and unaffiliated voters, according to a new Salt Lake Tribune/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll.

That is music to the ears of leaders of the Better Boundaries initiative, which has started a petition drive seeking 113,000 signatures needed to put creation of such an independent commission on the ballot next year for voters to consider.

"Fundamental to democracy is the idea that voters should choose who represents them. Politicians shouldn't get to choose their voters," wrote Better Boundaries co-chairman Ralph Becker, a Democrat and former Salt Lake City mayor, and Jeff Wright, a former GOP congressional candidate.

"Redistricting reform will make our representatives and legislators more accountable and ensure that districts make sense," they wrote. "This is good policy, and this poll shows that voters of all parties agree."

The new survey shows Republicans favor an independent commission to redraw boundaries by a 49 percent to 29 percent margin (with 22 percent undecided), Democrats back it by a whopping 87-8 spread, and unaffiliated voters support it by a 71-13 margin (with 16 percent undecided).

Although polling in past years also showed strong support for the concept, it never gained traction in the Legislature — where members now draw boundaries for their own districts plus those for congressional and state school board districts.

Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, has repeatedly introduced legislation calling for an independent commission since 2009 without it ever proceeding far.

"We are at this situation" — needing a voter initiative to advance the idea — "because of challenges I've had in the past in getting this bill through," Chavez-Houck said. "I'm heartened by the fact the polling shows the public feels strongly about this."

Redistricting by politicians in the Legislature has proved controversial.

After the 2010 census, then-Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson accused legislators of splitting up his old district four ways and making re-election impossible in the district where he lived — so he chose to run in an adjacent district that included more sections of his old district.

With the unusual move, Matheson barely won re-election — by 768 votes — over GOP challenger Mia Love in 2012. Two years later, he chose not to seek re-election, and Love won the seat.

In June, a nationwide analysis by The Associated Press said Utah redrew its legislative districts in a way to give the GOP extra help. It said Republicans won an average of 64 percent of the votes in each district, but GOP candidates won 83 percent of all the seats.

The AP analysis concluded that redistricting helped Utah Republicans win three more seats than they likely would have if districts had been drawn more objectively.

Still, Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes argues that the current system works well.

"I thought we were very careful" to follow laws, the Draper Republican said. "Many states get into litigation with the minority party because they think the way redistricting happened was unfair. I think our process has held up to legal scrutiny, so I think it's a good one."

He added, "But in terms of public sentiment, I think we need to do a better job of explaining what that process is to build confidence."

Meanwhile, even Republican Gov. Gary Herbert now says the idea of an independent commission is worth considering carefully — even though he has not decided yet whether he personally supports it.

If a commission is designed so that it is truly independent — otherwise "you can have it just as biased as when you have the Legislature do it" — then, "I think it's worth taking a look at," he said in his recent monthly news conference on KUED-TV.

But Herbert also said that in heavily Republican Utah, "No matter how you slice the pie when you, in fact, create districts, it's hard not to have a Republican district."

Jeff Beatty, a Democrat who lives in Holladay who participated in the new poll, says he favors an independent commission "because there have been a lot of cases here where lines were drawn to favor one party" — namely Republicans.

Better Boundaries would create a commission of Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated members who are banned from using partisan data — and who are instructed to follow city, county and geographic lines where possible. The Legislature would have to accept or reject its lines without amendment. Beatty said, "It would be more fair and bipartisan than the Legislature."

Michele Corigliano, a registered Republican living in Salt Lake City, who also participated in the poll, says she favors an independent commission even though gerrymandering supposedly helped her party in the recent past.

"In fact, I favor it more strongly because I am a Republican," she said. "The true Republican view is to let the marketplace bear out. By gerrymandering the way they do, it does not give a true reflection of what Utahns really want."

She added, "An independent commission is a necessity. The way gerrymandering occurs now is absurd."

Dan Jones & Associates conducted the statewide survey of 614 registered voters from July 18 through July 21. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.95 percentage points.