Gehrke: Passing Prop. 4 was a step toward better government, but now voters have to hold leaders accountable

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

It was close — not like Ben McAdams-Mia Love close — but Proposition 4, the Better Boundaries initiative to set up an independent redistricting commission, squeaked past by a margin of just 6,944 votes.

It was a nail-biter that surprised a lot of people I’ve talked to, mostly because it had been polling strong heading into the election, there was no organized opposition to it, it’s easy to sell people on “fair boundaries,” and the other propositions all passed by healthy margins by comparison.

So now we’ll see political districts drawn to keep cities and counties intact and representation in government more reflective of the true demographics of the state?

Not by a long shot. Because if getting the initiative on the ballot was a first step, passing it was the second on what remains a long and potentially perilous path.

“We have always had a post-election plan to make sure we’re vigilant and make sure we hold the line,” said Jeff Wright, co-chairman of the Better Boundaries movement.

First, let’s talk about why it was so surprisingly close. Basically the vote was split along two fault lines. One was political, with liberal-leaning voters voting for it and conservative voters opposed.

The other dividing line appears to have been an urban vs. rural divide. Indeed, just four counties voted in favor of the initiative — Salt Lake County, the most populous, along with Grand, Carbon and Summit.

Those last three don’t necessarily fit the definition of urban counties, but the population in them is predominantly in and around fast-growing cities like Moab and Park City. The initiative also did well in Weber and Davis counties.

All of the rural counties voted against the redistricting. Maybe they were swayed by local leaders or maybe they didn’t like the cost, about a million bucks every decade.

I think it’s also possible that rural voters share a lot of common interests — whether it’s in Piute (69 percent opposed), Uintah (68 percent opposed) or Morgan (63 percent opposed) — and right now they have representation from three, and to a lesser degree all four, of the state’s congressional members despite a relatively small portion of the population. Why mess with that disproportionate influence?

They may not need to worry about losing clout. Any changes brought by the initiative, as I mentioned, are a long way off.

The seven-member redistricting commission won’t be formed until after the results of the 2020 U.S. Census are released, sometime in early 2021. It will be the next governor who will appoint the commission chair and potentially future legislative leaders to appoint the six members — two Republicans, two Democrats and two unaffiliated.

Those seven would draft proposed boundaries based on the new standards in the law: keeping cities and counties intact as much as possible, making districts geographically compact, preserving communities of interest, and not using partisan data to favor any party or incumbent.

But they would just be proposals. Legislators have a constitutional right to draw boundaries, meaning they could completely ignore the commission and do what they want.

All of this assumes the independent commission even gets that far.

There is already talk of legal challenges. National groups, I am told, are already interested in suing. State Sen. Todd Weiler told my colleague Benjamin Wood in the “Trib Talk” podcast before the initiative passed that he thought it was “highly likely the state would sue or [legislators] would pass a bill invalidating” the Better Boundaries initiative.

Some legislators view the advice of an independent commission as an infringement on their right to redistrict; Republicans, especially, view the whole exercise as a plot by Democrats to get more favorable districts and more power.

Wright — who is a Republican — says that, so far, the Better Boundaries team has heard talk about changing it, and plans to work with the governor’s office and legislative leadership to encourage them to hold the line on the redistricting commission.

If that doesn’t work, they’ve socked away money to hire lobbyists if needed and to run ads to let voters know if legislators are trying to gut the commission. “Who is going to be the legislator saying, ‘I’m going to take that on and take the heat’? Because there could be a lot,” Wright said.

Ultimately vigilance and pressure from the public are the only things that can keep legislators from undoing the initiative. Passing Proposition 4 was a positive step, and voters found their voice. Now if they want to keep that voice, there is still work to be done.