Why redrawing Utah’s political maps will be a sprint to the finish this year

Delays with Census data means the process to redraw maps that usually takes months will be compacted into just a few weeks

(Bryan Schott | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, and Rep. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, the House and Senate chairs of the Utah Legislature's Redistricting Committee, discuss how the panel will redraw Utah's political maps at a press conference on July 14, 2021.

Add Utah’s once-a-decade redrawing of political boundaries to the long list of things disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The viral outbreak set off a Rube Goldberg-esque sequence of events that started with the 2020 Census. Pandemic-related restrictions upended plans to count every person in the United States, especially reaching out to those who did not respond online.

The data from the count that states use to draw the political lines are usually delivered in April of the following year. Now, that won’t happen until late August, which means Utah lawmakers will have to scrunch the process into just 8 weeks as they aim to finish just before Thanksgiving.

“We’re going to be very busy in September and October,” Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, said.

Ray, who is the House chair of the Legislative Redistricting Committee, explained they have to pack what took them a whole summer 10 years ago into just a few weeks. That includes a statewide series of public meetings along with considering map proposals from the public and the voter-approved independent redistricting commission.

That Thanksgiving deadline is important. The Legislature will draw new boundaries for all four Congressional districts and the 104 state House and Senate seats. Candidates can start collecting signatures to get on the ballot on January 1 of next year. Those candidates need to know which seat they’re running for, and county clerks need time to import the new maps into their systems.

“As long as the feds deliver on the timeline they promised, I think we’ll be okay,” Ray said.

Lawmakers are planning on more than 20 public meetings across the state starting in September. The full schedule will be released next week.

What role will the independent redistricting commission play?

For the first time ever, a parallel redistricting process is underway as the 9-member independent redistricting commission is already at work, coming up with map proposals that they will present to lawmakers during one of the public meetings.

In 2018, Utah voters narrowly approved a ballot initiative taking the map-drawing powers out of the hands of lawmakers, and giving that authority to the independent panel. The law creating the independent commission was altered by the Legislature in 2020, giving the group an advisory role only. That group started its work in April and will submit up to three map proposals to lawmakers later this year.

Will Legislators feel pressure to use what the voter-approved group comes up with?

“I hope they give us a good map,” Ray said. “If they do, it will make our job a lot easier.”

There’s no mandate for lawmakers to incorporate anything from the independent group as the Utah Constitution gives the legislature sole authority over redistricting, which is one of the reasons the law was changed in 2020.

“We can’t say for sure if we’re going to accept one map over the other because we haven’t seen them,” Ray added.

Map factors

There are a number of factors lawmakers will consider when considering how to divide up the state. One factor will be making the districts roughly equal in population. The 2020 Census showed Utah’s population at 3,275,252. The state added 507,731 residents over the last decade. That 18.4% growth rate was the fastest in the nation.

The new population numbers break down like this. Each of the state’s 4 Congressional districts will have roughly 818,800 people, while the 29 state senate districts will contain about 112,900 people. The population of the 75 House districts will contain approximately 43,670 residents.

The difference in population between districts is probably the most important factor for legislators. The committee is aiming for no more than 5% deviation between state House and Senate seats, and no more than 0.1% for each of the Congressional districts.

The reason for those tight margins is easy to explain, says Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton. If they stay within those numbers, the less likely the final maps will be challenged in court.

“If you run outside of the boundaries of the percent of deviation you can have, you are set up for a lawsuit, and there’s just no reason for that,” Sandall said.

Lawmakers will also aim to keep the districts “reasonably compact” and contiguous.

The committee will not try to keep “communities of interest” together when drawing the maps because the definition is too broad.

“We felt the definition was not clear enough to be able to put in what we would want to try to accomplish. We’d like to be able to use it, but we couldn’t because we can’t define it,” Sandall explained.

One major difference between the legislative committee and the independent commission is data where incumbent lawmakers live. The independent commission will draw maps without including that information, while lawmakers will take that into consideration.

Critics say the latter allows elected officials to pick their voters, instead of letting voters pick who represents them. It also allows legislators to avoid having to run against another incumbent if they get drawn into the same seat.

“There are a number of constituents out there who know and really appreciate who sits in the elected seat for them. If we’re going to allow the public to draw these maps, we think it’s important that they understand where those elected officials live. If they really like that person, they can draw and submit a map that keeps them in their district, and if they don’t like them, they can draw a map that moves them somewhere else,” Sandall says.

Public participation

The 20 members of the committee will hit the road this summer to get input from the public starting September 2 in Price. The legislative roadshow will wind its way throughout Utah over the next six weeks, concluding with four public hearings at the Utah State Capitol.

The public can also draw its own maps for the committee to consider using the same software available to lawmakers. That website will be available to the public shortly after the official Census data is delivered, sometime in September.