Utah Democrats argue independent redistricting commission will create the only ‘legitimate maps’

Republican leading the Legislature’s efforts refutes this, argues the state constitution and data will guide their effort.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, talks to concerned Utah voters Teresa Carlson and Helen Moser with the League of Women Voters about possible partisan gerrymandering of the redrawn redistricting lines on Aug. 19, 2021 at the Millcreek Library.

Millcreek • When Utah’s Legislature votes on new political districts later this year, Sen. Derek Kitchen believes lawmakers will face two choices: They can stand with the voters in the state or protect the political interests of incumbents.

The Salt Lake City Democrat held a news conference at a library in Millcreek on Thursday to urge his colleagues to adopt the maps that will eventually be created by an independent commission.

“These are the legitimate maps for Utah,” he said, “not only because the people of Utah voted for them, but because they’re created without considering political party or any single politician.”

But Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, takes issue with Kitchen’s assessment. He is co-leading a legislative committee that is drawing its own maps following the same process the Republican-dominated Legislature has used every 10 years. He said the state constitution gives the Legislature, and only the Legislature, the ability to redraw districts.

“They should at least wait until we draw our first map,” Ray said, “before they start screaming about gerrymandering.”

The recent release of census numbers means the once-every-decade redistricting process can get underway, but the disagreement between Kitchen and Ray goes back a few years.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, talked to a small group of Utah voters concerned about possible partisan gerrymandering of the redrawing of redistricting lines. Kitchen was joined bySen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood and Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper to emphasize the importance of the will of the voters in drawing new lines in the redistricting process, Aug. 19, 2021 at the Millcreek Library.

A group called Better Boundaries collected enough signatures to put a referendum before voters to create an independent redistricting commission. Voters approved it in 2018, and this is the first year it is in action.

The commission’s maps are only recommendations, drawn without considering where incumbents live, but the Legislature will hold a public hearing on them. Kitchen wants that to be the end of the state’s redistricting process.

But a legislative committee is working on its own maps, which does take into account where sitting officeholders live. These lawmakers believe their version should be the one that ultimately gets approved, though they will take input from the independent commission, which includes Republicans and Democrats. Republicans outnumber Democrats 15-5 on the legislative committee.

Utah is the fastest-growing state in the nation, but not every city or county grew at the same rate. That means there could be considerable shifts in the boundaries of congressional districts, state legislative districts and those for school boards.

Kitchen, who appeared with Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, and Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper, argued that this redistricting allows the state to hit reset. He alleges the maps created 10 years ago were overly political and should not be used as the starting point this year.

“Utah is bigger and more diverse than ever,” he said. “We must have better maps than we’ve had in the past.”

Millcreek resident Teresa Carlson was a member of the Better Boundaries Coalition that collected signatures. She attended the news conference to show support.

“I’m worried that it won’t matter to the Republicans in the Legislature,” she said. “I’m worried that whatever we come up with, they will reject.”

The three Democrats picked Millcreek to hold their news conference because within four square miles of that library, three congressional districts converge. They think any county should be split only once. Kitchen also argued that current districts unfairly divided the cities of Moab and West Jordan.

“Everyone can agree that the people of every community should choose their elected officials,” Harrison said, “and it should not be politicians choosing their voters.”

Ray’s response? “Good luck.”

He argued that his Democratic colleagues are not looking at the reality of redistricting in Utah. Each district has to have almost identical population levels. He argues that Salt Lake County, with roughly a third of the state’s population, will likely be split three ways again.

“It just can’t be done any other way,” he said, “and be fair.”

Ray said this is a process driven by data, namely the population counts from the census. And it will involve input from the public.

The next legislative redistricting committee meeting will take place Sept. 2 at 10 a.m.

The independent redistricting committee will start drawing its maps Monday and will hold a public hearing in Monticello on Sept. 3.

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