When Utah lawmakers redrew the state’s voting maps in 2011, Rep. Brian King said they did so in a relatively transparent, collaborative and fair way.
But the Salt Lake City Democrat and House minority leader added that partisan interests were still at play, and incidents of gerrymandering occurred.
“Summit County was gerrymandered,” King said Wednesday. “Period, end of story.”
King said the population of Democratic-leaning Summit County — which includes the liberal stronghold of Park City — was close to the perfect size for a Utah House district after the 2010 census. But rather than keep the county intact, he said, lawmakers elected to split it three ways, including the House seat that King represents. Republicans hold the other two seats.
In the most recent presidential election, Democrat Hillary Clinton won Summit County, 59 percent to 41 percent, over Republican Donald Trump. In this year’s election, Democratic Senate candidate Jenny Wilson defeated Republican Mitt Romney in the county even though Romney owned a second home there for years.
“People in political positions of power said, ‘We don’t want it that way,' " King said about the idea of keeping the county intact in its own House district. He declined to name names. “But it was a small piece of a much bigger redistricting process for the state House that I thought, on the whole, was pretty good.”
King’s comments came during this week’s episode of The Salt Lake Tribune’s “Trib Talk” podcast, which looked at redistricting and the disparity between liberal voters in the state and liberal representation in the Utah House and Senate. In 2018, a third of all votes for House candidates went to Democrats, but the party won only a fifth of the chamber’s seats.
King was joined on the podcast by Jeremy Roberts, a former member of the Salt Lake County Republican Party’s executive committee. Roberts said the disparity between votes and seats is primarily a function of geography, because the state’s liberal voters are largely clustered in Salt Lake County.
He said it would require gerrymandering in favor of Democrats to make a third of state House seats competitive for the minority party, and that the disparity in 2018 is exacerbated by the factors at play in this year’s election.
“We’ve got a very unpopular president, we had a very popular — in Salt Lake County — county mayor running for Congress [and] we had Proposition 2 [on medical cannabis] that brought out a lot of votes,” Roberts said. “In those years, you’re going to see kind of a spike in liberal and Democrat-leaning voters.”
Roberts said voting districts should be compact, contiguous and congruent. He referred to an adage that voting maps should produce “turtles, not snakes” and “dustbins, not rakes,” and said any disparity to the popular vote is irrelevant as long as Utah’s districts are drawn in appropriate shapes.
“That’s exactly how you do it,” Roberts said.
King said the shape of districts is one measurement of gerrymandering, but so is the overall representation in the state.
“You have to look at the disparity between how people vote and how many people get elected,” King said.
And while the current maps for state House, Senate and school board are largely the result of a fair, collaborative process, King said, the same can’t be said of Utah’s congressional districts.
“The Republicans basically took that process, and they did it on their own,” King said. “You can certainly have gerrymandering without having snakes and rakes, and I think it happened for our four congressional districts.”
Roberts agreed that the process for Utah’s state and federal maps were different. And the 4th District — currently held by Republican Rep. Mia Love but soon to be held by Democrat Ben McAdams — is a snake, Roberts said, taking a narrow path through Salt Lake, Utah, Sanpete and Juab counties.
Roberts added that were he a Democrat, he wouldn’t necessarily complain about the 4th District since it has produced a Democratic Congress member in two of the four elections since it was drawn.
“When everything is said and done,” Roberts said, "the Democrats are going to probably control it for about 60 percent of the time that we’ve had it.”
The full discussion between King and Roberts can be found on this week’s “Trib Talk,” available at sltrib.com or on most major podcast platforms.