Utah has its independent commission to help redraw voting boundaries for the coming decade

Governor names BYU professor as chair; GOP House speaker names former Congressman Rob Bishop.

(Matt Rourke | AP file photo) The U.S. Census Bureau says the data that states will use to draw new political maps will be delayed until the spring or summer. That could have a significant impact on Utah's redistricting process as well as the state's new independent redistricting commission.

Gov. Spencer Cox named Brigham Young University professor Rex Facer as chair of Utah’s independent redistricting commission Monday, while legislative leaders named former Rep. Rob Bishop and two former state lawmakers to the panel.

Facer is an associate professor of public management in the Romney Institute of Public Service and Ethics, where he teaches in the Master of Public Administration program, a position he has held since 2009.

“Rex Facer will bring the public policy expertise, leadership experience and unbiased opinion that we’re looking for in this independent redistricting commission,” Cox said in a statement making the announcement.

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, picked Bishop, who retired from Congress in January after nine terms, following 16 years in the Legislature. Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, tapped former Sen. Lyle Hillyard, who was ousted from his seat in a June primary election after 42 years in the Legislature.

Senate Minority Leader Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, selected former Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine Durham, while House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, picked former Utah Senate Minority Leader Pat Jones, who served in the Legislature from 2006 to 2014.

The final two spots were reserved for nonpartisan members who were selected jointly by the majority and minority legislative leadership. The Republican leaders selected Davis County’s N. Jeffery Baker while the Democrats settled on former Utah District Judge William A. Thorne.

Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeffrey Merchant praised the selection of Facer to chair the commission but he was shocked that Bishop and Hillyard were chosen, noting that the former congressman has been involved in Utah politics since before Merchant was born.

“President Adams and Speaker Wilson chose two people who bring nothing more than rank partisanship to the table. It’s unfortunate that everyone involved has tried to make this a truly independent commission while Republican leadership has chosen to go the opposite route,” he said.

While its membership is now set, the commission may not have any work to do until the fall in recommending the state’s new congressional and legislative voting district boundaries.

The Census Bureau said last week it would be late in delivering the data that states will use to redraw political boundaries, which will delay Utah’s mapmaking process by several months. The bureau missed its Dec. 31 deadline for delivering population information due to disruptions caused by the pandemic. The numbers used to divvy up congressional districts are now expected by April, but state-level data used to set legislative district boundaries won’t be available until the end of July at the earliest.

The truth is, Utah may be looking at more significant delays.

“We honestly believe from the emails and communications we’ve received that we may not see our data until well into August or maybe even September,” says Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, Senate chair of the Legislature’s redistricting commission.

“Historically it’s taken six weeks for them to roll out that state data. If they don’t start until July 31st, we may not see it until the end of August or into September,” he added.

That will leave Utah lawmakers and the independent redistricting commission scrambling to draw new maps and get them approved before candidates start gathering signatures on Jan. 1.

For instance, the independent commission is required by law to hold at least seven public meetings across the state by Aug. 1 of this year. The commission is required to adopt its final map recommendations no later than Aug. 21. For its part, the Legislature’s redistricting commission must hold a meeting to consider those maps by Sept. 1. These deadlines will be tough to meet if the data isn’t available until July 31.

Former Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, who is now co-chair of the Better Boundaries group that was behind the ballot initiative creating the independent group, says the compressed schedule will be difficult to manage, but not impossible.

“That timeline is set out in state law, but lawmakers have to give this independent group time to do their work. Recognizing the impact of the pandemic, they can always make changes to the law if they need to,” Becker said.

Lawmakers, too, are planning to accelerate their efforts because of the truncated timeline. In 2011, the joint redistricting committee held 17 meetings around the state prior to proposing maps that were approved by the Legislature in October of that year.

Because of the data delay, legislators plan on beginning their public meetings in the spring and summer, even though they may not have the information to draw maps until the fall.

“The thought of holding 15 to 20 town hall meetings across the state in a four-week period is pretty daunting,” says Rep. Paul Ray, the House co-chair of the Legislature’s joint committee. “We’ve decided that we’re going to go ahead and do those as scheduled, then wait for the apportionment numbers to come in.”

Constitutionally, the Legislature must approve the new map lines by the end of the 2022 general session. In reality, they’ll have to be done earlier than that. Not only do candidates begin filing for office on March 17 of that year, but candidates who intend to get on the primary ballot through signature-gathering can file as early as Jan. 1.

Additionally, county clerks across the state will need time to put the new maps into their systems.

All of this means that once the census data is available, lawmakers will be sprinting to finish their jobs.

“I told somebody I’m probably going to have to bring a sleeping bag down here to my office because I’m going to be here 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” joked Sandall.

The independent redistricting commission approved by Utah voters in the 2018 election was reduced to an advisory role by lawmakers last year. But supporters hope that its recommendations will put pressure on lawmakers to draw political maps that are focused more on communities of interest and common sense than partisan maneuvering that in the past has led to allegations of gerrymandering.