Utah Democrats won a third of the votes for the state House, but only a fifth of the seats. Is this what gerrymandering looks like?

When Utah lawmakers voted this week to override a publicly-approved medical marijuana initiative, a common argument raised was that while a majority of voters statewide had approved Proposition 2, the initiative had actually failed in many or most House and Senate districts.

Those voting trends muddied a clear mandate of the public, lawmakers said, as individual representatives and senators answer primarily to their respective voters — rather than the entire state.

“The fact that a majority voted in the state of Utah is an important factor,” said Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo. “But we represent our districts.”

The marijuana debate highlighted the complex and sometimes counterintuitive dynamics at play in electoral math, in which artificial political boundaries can lead to large voting blocs being minimized or even canceled out by opposition in neighboring areas.

Utah’s voting maps typically exaggerate the state’s Republican majority, to the detriment of Democrats and third-party voters. In 2018, Democratic candidates received one out of every three votes in state House elections, but the party will hold only one in five House seats next year, according to a Salt Lake Tribune analysis of election results.

Marcus Stevenson, political director for the Utah Democratic Party, said he was not surprised by the disparity between the popular vote and the party’s representation in state government. He said state lawmakers have intentionally condensed liberal-leaning areas like Salt Lake City into as few voting districts as possible to dilute the Democratic vote, a practice known commonly as “packing and cracking.”

“I don’t think the party has been cheated out of representation, I think the people of Utah have been cheated out of representation,” Stevenson said. “Their voice, their votes, aren’t being counted the way that they should be.”

That could potentially change under Proposition 4, which seeks to mitigate the power of incumbent lawmakers to draw their own districts by empaneling an independent redistricting commission. The initiative passed with a razor-thin majority of votes — winning without winning everywhere, like Prop 2 — and despite vocal opposition by legislators.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said much of the debate around Utah’s voting maps are “after-the-fact sour grapes.” He has previously described the redistricting power as the spoils of victory, and told The Tribune this week that elections have winners and losers and our system of government has never been expected to enshrine losing votes.

“We could rip up the state constitution and the federal Constitution and we could start over and we could try to write something that would be more pluralistic,” Weiler said. “That is certainly achievable. But that’s not our system and I don’t think it should be.”

Crunching the numbers

Last month, Utahns cast a combined 624,450 votes for Republican state House candidates, 344,736 votes for Democratic House candidates, and 43,074 votes for third-party House candidates. Those numbers translate to 62 percent of the popular House vote for Republicans, 34 percent for Democrats and 4 percent for third-party candidates.

But Republicans will hold 59 House seats next year — or 79 percent— compared with 16 seats — 21 percent — for Democrats. No third-party candidates won election.

If Utah’s House districts perfectly represented the state’s popular vote, Democrats could expect to hold at least nine additional seats. That scenario would bring their total representation in the chamber to roughly 25 seats, potentially jeopardizing the Republican party’s veto-proof House supermajority.

“Our Democratic Party wants to see the most fair representation in the state,” Stevenson said. “Whatever the will of the people is, we accept that. We just want to make sure that voices are heard equitably.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

A similar dynamic is at play in this year’s popular vote for Utah Senate, albeit with less clear implications for representation within the chamber. While all House seats come up for election every two years — providing an analogous snapshot of the statewide electorate — Senate elections are staggered so that roughly half of the members' four-year terms conclude during each election cycle.

This year, the map of Senate districts up for election ran through Democratic-leaning Salt Lake County, with all but one of the minority party-held seats on the ballot. But even with that dynamic in play, Utah Republicans won 67 percent of Senate seats on the ballot with only 57 percent of the Senate popular vote, a swing of 10 percentage points in favor of the state’s dominant party.

Weiler said that if those fortunes were reversed, with the Utah Republican Party winning fewer seats than its vote share, or if it became the state’s minority party, it would be up to individual conservatives whether to cry foul over representation. But he added that he would not join them in that criticism.

“I grew up Republican just outside of Chicago,” Weiler said. “I know what it feels like to be in the minority and I never adopted this proportionality argument that is being floated.”

Defending Prop 4

Jeff Wright, co-chairman of the Proposition 4 campaign with former Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, said his team always saw the initiative as having three parts: getting on the ballot, winning in November, and advocating against legislative attempts to undo or alter the independent redistricting commission.

“We’re going to defend this,” Wright said. “We’re going to look at every district. We’re going to look at every representative’s home area and make sure that we make a case to them on why this is important.”

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) 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.

Wright prefers to not speculate on how the commission’s maps will change who wins in the state. Instead, he emphasizes the map-drawing guidelines included in Prop 4, such as the preservation — to the degree possible — of existing geographical, city, county and community boundaries.

That may or may not make Utah’s districts more competitive, he said, but it should lead to more natural and common-sense groupings of voters.

“I just think you’re going to have a better, representative map of the state of Utah,” Wright said.

Redistricting occurs every decade, with the next round of map-drawing expected in 2021 after completion of the 2020 census. Under Proposition 4, lawmakers retain their constitutional power to vote on district boundaries, but after consideration of the independent panel’s recommendations.

Because voting districts must be equal in population, it is inevitable that some cities, counties and communities will be divided among representatives. And some of the “packing” described by Stevenson occurs naturally, as like-minded voters tend to reside near each other.

Stevenson said a level of disparity between the popular vote and chamber representation is to be expected, particularly in the Senate where fewer seats mean larger districts. But he suggested the Democratic Party’s deficit of 13 percentage points in the Utah House is excessive.

“The reality is that we should be in the realm of [the popular vote],” he said. “This is why Prop 4 is so important."

Paul Edwards, spokesman for Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, said the governor would not encourage any “tinkering” with the redistricting initiative by lawmakers.

“If the topic were to come up during the general session,” Edwards said, “the governor would work with legislative leaders to ensure that the voice of the people in support of Proposition 4 be upheld.”

‘Potholes are not partisan’

Weiler acknowledged that map-drawing can determine the outcome of an election, and that there is potential that the redistricting power could be abused. But he said he rejects the premise that election outcomes must or should reflect the state’s partisan makeup.

“That’s not how we do it in America," he said.

Weiler said all of government, including redistricting, is increasingly seen through a partisan lens. But the U.S. Constitution does not mention political parties, he said, as they were not seen as a priority by the Founding Fathers.

Divisive, controversial debate may get the most attention, Weiler said, but much of government is bipartisan — or even nonpartisan. He gave the example of potholes, which need to be filled whether a city council is majority Republican or majority Democrat. (Municipal elections in the state are nonpartisan.)

“Potholes are not partisan,” Weiler said. “Most of the work we do at the Legislature is more analogous to filling potholes than trying to solve the abortion issue.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake, and Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, discuss SB27 and HB125, that help survivors of domestic violence during a press event at the Utah Capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018.

But Stevenson said gerrymandering goes beyond a partisan advantage. The maps have traditionally been drawn and voted on by incumbents in both parties, he said, and Prop 4 could lead to more competition in urban areas of Utah that are currently Democratic strongholds.

“Whether it be the state House or the state Senate, these communities are sliced and diced into the way that best helps those incumbents in that area,” he said.

Wright said Prop 4 is aimed at structural reform, indifferent to which party holds a majority in the state in any given decade.

“I’m a Republican,” Wright said. “I want to see Republicans win. But I want to see them win at the ballot box based on ideas that they have and based on their policies and who they are, and not [based] on backroom dealing.”

He said his group, Better Boundaries, has not been approached by lawmakers about any potential compromise reforms, as happened with supporters and opponents of medical marijuana legalization before Prop 2 was replaced with negotiated legislation in special session.

“We are prepared for the long haul here," Wright said, “to make sure that this is implemented and the will of the people is respected.”