Many Utah voters support initiative to create an independent redistricting board — but some are skeptical of impartiality, poll shows

Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune Former SLC Mayor Ralph Becker, right, and Jeff Wright talk about the formal launch of the Better Boundaries initiative, which will ask voters to create an independent commission to redraw political districts . The pair spoke from the Cicero Group offices in Salt Lake City Thursday July 20, 2017.

A near 2-to-1 majority of registered Utah voters support a ballot initiative that would change the way the state draws its voting districts each decade, though one in five remains unsure about the concept, a new poll shows.

The initiative, brought by a bipartisan group that includes former Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, would create an independent commission that would take the first stab at setting boundaries for state House and Senate, as well as congressional voting districts. Then the Legislature would vote on the plan.

As it now stands, the Republican-dominated Legislature drafts the boundaries, largely in private meetings.

The Better Boundaries initiative follows efforts in other states to combat gerrymandering by using a commission with members who follow guidelines that seek to keep politics out of the redistricting process.

“Utahns want government to be responsive and accountable to the people, and they know that the Better Boundaries initiative will achieve that goal,” campaign co-Chairmen Becker and Jeff Wright said in a written response to the poll results. “This initiative will be on the November 2018 ballot and we are confident it will succeed.”

One in four registered voters strongly supports the Better Boundaries plan and 28 percent somewhat support the idea, according to the results of polling by Dan Jones & Associates for The Salt Lake Tribune and the Hinckley Institute of Politics.

Twenty-seven percent of the 605 registered voters surveyed were either strongly or somewhat opposed to the idea. And 20 percent didn’t know whether they supported the initiative, one of five that may be on the 2018 ballot.

Among those opposed were Diane Bernsdorff, a former Democrat from Brigham City with a long history working in national politics. She said she wants to limit partisanship from the process, but she lacks confidence the commission would truly be free from politics.

“Oftentimes, the redistricting is run in such a fashion that a particular district, the way it’s drawn up, might be predominantly supporting one party over another,” she said. “You don’t get these committees that are that nonpartisan. It’s very difficult.”

If passed during the November 2018 election, the initiative would create the Utah Independent Redistricting Commission, a seven-member panel that would propose new boundaries that the Legislature would approve or deny. Commissioners would be appointed by various elected and political officials.

The initiative says the panel would create districts that have a near-equal number of voters in each district. It would seek to avoid splitting up cities and counties and would follow geographical boundaries. Commissioners can’t have been a lobbyist, candidate or elected official for the four years before they were appointed and four years after their time on the commission.

If Utahns felt the panel and Legislature didn’t pass new boundaries that were nonpartisan, the initiative would give them a chance to petition a court to prevent the new boundaries from taking effect.

“One party shouldn’t benefit more than another,” said Allen Throndson, a Republican-leaning conservative from Heber City, who was unsure about the initiative. “You want fair representation.”

An analysis of the once-a-decade redistricting process by the Associated Press found the boundaries for Utah’s House districts were skewed to favor Republicans, though the Legislature would likely still be dominated by the GOP.

The analysis used a model developed to study the partisanship of districts and was cited in a Wisconsin gerrymandering case that’s now before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The AP studied Utah’s congressional boundaries and found they may slightly favor Republicans, though experts said states with fewer than six or seven seats in the U.S. House are difficult to analyze. Utah has four House districts.