Utah Democrats are rooting with gusto for a lawsuit argued Tuesday before the U.S. Supreme Court that for the first time could ban political district boundaries if they were drawn to give one party an unjust disadvantage only for partisan reasons.
Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, was chairman of the Utah Democratic Party during the state’s last redistricting — in 2011. He says a high-court ruling against partisan gerrymandering would give Democrats in the state grounds to sue over voter maps created by the GOP-controlled Legislature.
Up to now, the law has allowed overturning districts only for other, discrimination-related reasons.
“You had to show racial or ethnic issues. If you couldn’t do that, then you didn’t win,” Dabakis said — adding that his party didn’t sue partially because of that, and partially because of the high financial cost. Still, he argues that Utah’s political boundaries gave Republicans more seats than even their big numbers should merit.
Unless the court rules otherwise, he said, “It’s perfectly legal now for politicians to make decisions based entirely on partisanship….. What this would do is say, no they can’t just gerrymander based on politics.”
In the case before the high court, Wisconsin Democrats argue that both parties win roughly the same percentage of its statewide vote — but Republicans gerrymandered boundaries so that they win a strong majority of Legislative seats.
Dabakis and others argue the same sort of thing — on a smaller scale — happened in Utah.
For example, Ogden is large enough to merit most of three state House districts and Democrats would win them all, he argues. But he said GOP lawmakers sliced up the state’s seventh-largest city and connected the pieces into districts where their majorities are heavily Republican.
“So there is no voice for Ogden,” he says.
Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, who was co-chairman of the redistricting committee in 2011, disagrees. He says the panel worked hard to be fair, but acknowledges partisan data was weighed and used in some cases.
“I don’t think it made a difference in the redistricting that we did at the time because of the way the state is made up,” with its heavy GOP membership statewide, he said.
However, a nationwide analysis in June by The Associated Press found that Utah had drawn its legislative districts in a way to give the GOP extra help. Republicans won an average of 64 percent of the votes in each district, but GOP candidates won 83 percent of all the seats, it found.
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.
Dabakis said while the Legislature’s redistricting committee made a show of using nonpartisan data in public presentations, the final maps were approved in a long, closed-door Republican caucus that ignored months of public hearings.
“It was the American political process at it ugliest, meanest and most selfish where legislators are picking their voters, instead of having the voters pick the legislators,” he said.
Former Utah first lady Norma Matheson is another Democrat cheering for the court case. She says her late husband, former Democratic Gov. Scott Matheson, formed a bipartisan commission that recommend fair procedures for the 1980 redistricting — “but the Legislature ignored it. That shows this has been an issue for a long time.”
Her son, former Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, was targeted in two separate rounds of redistricting, she said. He accused legislators of splitting up his old district into several pieces in the attempt to make re-election impossible. He held on by less than 1 percent in the 2002 election and then, when the 2011 Legislature reshuffled it again, he ran in an adjacent district that included much of his old district. He again prevailed by less than 1 percent.
“He survived anyway,” Norma Mathson notes — winning by 768 votes (out of more than 240,000 cast) over GOP challenger Mia Love in 2012. Two years later he chose not to seek re-election, and Love won the seat.
“I think the general public is very concerned about gerrymandering,” says Norma Matheson, adding that is why there‘s a drive on to ask voters to create an independent redistricting commission in next year’s election.
Meanwhile, Okerlund said the Legislature drew congressional boundaries not so much to try to hurt Jim Matheson, but to give Democrats at least a fighting chance in all four of the state’s congressional districts.
“If you were to draw a congressional district that included only Salt Lake City, there certainly would have been a majority of Democrats who would have supported Jim Matheson. But if you did that, the other three districts would be completely, totally partisan Republican,” he said.
“So to try to make a fair opportunity in each of the congressional districts,” he said, “we tried to draw the boundaries so that there’s some opportunity for both parties to have a representative.”