Here come the redistricting maps: What you need to know about who draws them

Redistricting gets down to business next week. Here’s what factors Utah legislators will consider

(Rick Bowmer | AP) Utah lawmakers are preparing to begin the once-a-decade redistricting process where they redraw the state's political boundaries.

It’s the day lawmakers around the country have been waiting for. The release of the 2020 Census data they will use determine who represents you in Congress, the state legislature, and other important elected offices.

Over the next three months, lawmakers, the new independent redistricting commission, and the public will offer their ideas for what Utah’s political boundaries should look like for the next 10 years.

What is redistricting?

Utah uses Census data, which is collected once a decade, to determine how to draw the boundaries for four Congressional districts, 29 state Senate seats, 75 state House districts and state school board districts based on population.

Utah was the fastest-growing state in the country, according to Census data released in April. The state’s population grew 18.4% from 2010 to 2020, but some areas of the state added more people than others. That will affect how the lines are drawn but it did not result in any additional seats at the federal level.

Who draws the lines?

The Utah Legislature formed a 20-member committee (15 Republicans and five Democrats) to draw new political maps. The committee plans 20 public hearings around the state beginning Monday and continuing through October.

In 2018, Utah voters passed a ballot initiative creating an independent body to handle redistricting. But in 2020, the Legislature made a deal with backers of the independent group, and it now has an advisory role. The Utah constitution explicitly says the Legislature is in charge of the process and the concern was that without changes, the whole law could be found unconstitutional.

Part of that compromise included a requirement that the Legislature hold a public hearing where it will consider up to three sets of maps drawn up by the commission.

But there’s no requirement that the Legislature adopt any of the map proposals put forward by the independent group.

The public will be able to submit map proposals as well, using the same software and data available to the legislative committee and independent body. It will be available on the website next week.

Population targets

The Census put Utah’s population at 3,275,252. That means each of the state’s four congressional seats will encompass a population of 817,904. Ten years ago, it was 690,071. The population inside the current boundaries of the 4th District is 850,432. The district needs to shed about 32,000 people to meet its population target. At the same time, the other three seats are below that population goal.

The target population for a state senate seat is approximately 112,814, up from 95,306 in 2010. House seats will aim for 43,622 people. The 2011 redistricting target was 36,852.

Each of the 15 State School Board seats will cover a population of 218,108.

You’ll probably hear a lot about “deviation,” as lawmakers and the independent committee sit down to draw their maps, allowing them some wiggle room in population differences among seats. For example, the legislature’s committee allows for plus or minus 5 percent population difference between state House and Senate districts. It’s a little more strict for the four Congressional seats, as lawmakers will only allow a population difference of one person among districts.

The deviation is important because too great a difference among districts could bring a lawsuit. Yurij Rudensky, a redistricting counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, explains that all of the districts should have roughly the same number of people. But standards can vary depending on the type of seat being considered.

“There is a constitutional requirement to give every person fair and equal representation. The standard is more strict for Congressional districts where they have to be substantially equal, which means as close to no deviation as possible,” Rudensky said.

Utah’s target of plus or minus 5% for state House and Senate seats is the standard courts have set in the past, which allows for some flexibility.

“There might be some compelling reason, say trying to give a particular racial community effective representation that would justify drawing a district a little less or a little bit more populated instead of strict equality,” Rudensky said.

Shifting lines

Every county in Utah experienced a population increase over the last decade, but some areas grew faster than others, which means the new maps will likely favor those parts of the state, especially on the new state House and Senate maps.

Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, the House chair of the Legislative Redistricting Committee says the early indications are northern Utah County had the fastest population growth in the state, and will likely gain a House seat. Southwest Salt Lake County, including Herriman, Riverton, and Draper also had large growth, so that area stands to gain half of a House seat. So, where will those seats come from?

“It looks like that shift is going to come from Salt Lake City. They did see growth, but didn’t keep up with that growth in southwest Salt Lake County and Utah County,” Ray said.

Ray also said the St. George grew rapidly and could gain at least a half-seat in the House. Naturally, that will have to come from the rural areas of the state, which means less representation for them.

Protecting incumbents?

The legislative and independent committees disagree on whether to consider where incumbents live. The independent committee will draw maps blind, meaning it won’t consider that data. The legislative committee will consider where an incumbent lives.

There are arguments to be made for both. For instance, Ray says considering that information increases transparency.

“We want the public to see where their representatives live. That gives them an opportunity to draw maps based on that. Maybe they don’t like their incumbent, so they can cut them out. Or maybe they like who represents them, so they want to keep them. We already know where we live and where our colleagues live, but we want the public to see that information,” Ray said.

Facer explained omitting that data helps them draw better maps without any consideration of protecting or even disadvantaging incumbents.

“By not knowing that information, we’re making an explicit effort to not favor or disfavor anybody. If we were looking at that, we could get mired of discussing whether we’re favoring someone. We don’t we want to do that,” Facer said.

Adam Podowitz-Thomas, Senior Legal Strategist for the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, says including the information can be problematic.

“When incumbent addresses are considered as part of the redistricting process, it tends to lend itself to partisan gerrymandering. By considering districts that historically elected one representative, you’re also thinking about the voters that chose that representative. You’re really not focusing on the needs of the community or preserving political subdivisions or other criteria,” Podowitz-Thomas said.

A ‘good’ map

While beauty is in the eye of the beholder, there are some things you should look for when considering a map proposal.

The districts should be reasonably compact, so no weird shapes. They usually follow traditional political divisions, like cities or county boundaries, because people who live there tend to be affiliated with each other.

And the most important part?

“We think it’s really important that the map have public input. It should be a map that the public feels reflects their interests, and where elected officials are accountable to the voters for their actions,” Podowitz-Thomas said.