This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
Following Utah’s calls for public participation in the redistricting process, Utahns from across the state are sharing how they want their elections to look in the future.
At least 20 Utahns have drawn and submitted maps for congressional, state and school board races, and even more have participated in the process by voicing their opinions at public hearings across the state. But officials involved with redistricting hope even more will attempt to solve the puzzle of ideal districts. Although the majority party leaders will ultimately choose which plans to adopt, these conversations can impact the next decade of Utah politics, especially on a local level.
Those interested can propose new borders for congressional, state and school board races. Both the legislative redistricting committee and the independent commission for redistricting are accepting public submissions via their respective websites. For those less interested in drawing maps, there are still plenty of ways to participate, like attending a public hearing across the state.
“There are hundreds of thousands of options that could be viable, which is why you outsource a big problem like this to the public, let a lot of minds look at it and come up with as many solutions as you can find,” said Jerry Howe, the Senior Strategic Initiatives Manager of the Legislative Redistricting Committee in a recent public hearing. “You never know who will stumble upon the one that works for everybody.”
Stuart Hepworth, a 22-year-old student at the University of Utah and self-proclaimed redistricting geek, is one of the most active participants in the process. He had been playing with district maps online for three years before getting the chance to submit them officially, posting them on forums, Reddit and Twitter for feedback.
“My early maps were pretty bad compared to the ones that I’m drawing now, but I kept at it and got a better sense for what cities should go with which other cities and how to make a map that’s compact, aligns to communities of interest well and is fair,” said Hepworth.
He drew several congressional maps: one focusing on creating compact districts, another on creating more competitive elections and a third to group together rural areas he thought might have similar political interests. For Hepworth, the most important part of drawing a district is keeping communities united.
Ian Larm, a 22-year-old educator from South Jordan, also tried his hand at redistricting after finding the call for submissions when researching the census. As someone frustrated by how his district is drawn, he liked the option to share his opinion.
“I’m in [U.S. Congressional] district four, combining parts of Utah and Salt Lake counties,” he said. “I never enjoyed being in this district because it’s sort of a peanut shape. It’s important to me that Salt Lake County is more connected. I feel like I’m in a district that’s been gerrymandered.”
Larm found the software difficult at first but submitted multiple plans for possible congressional districts.
“There’s a lot of trial and error to get the populations to match exactly,” said Larm. “That takes most of the time, trying to find the magic combination along the border.”
Though they have submitted their maps, Hepworth and Larm hope for more active discussion about proposals. Right now, to see others’ pitches, people need to pull it from the mapping software.
Jerry Howe of the Legislative Redistricting Commission maintains they are working to improve the process. “We are working towards showcasing all of the submitted maps that meet the criteria on redistricting.utah.gov, where everybody can see and comment on them,” said Howe.
Proposals must meet certain standards based on federal and state guidelines. In addition to even population across districts, districts must be contiguous and relatively compact.
But Utahns do not need to draw maps to participate in the process. They can attend public hearings across the state and express what matters to them in future elections. They can also interact with the Independent Redistricting Commission, which seeks to make its map drawing process as transparent as possible by livestreaming their everyday work on their YouTube channel.
Utah is not the only state that lets the public propose district boundaries. Maryland, Michigan and several other states invite residents to submit maps.
There is even a coalition that researches and helps implement this process, called the Public Mapping Project. Dr. Micah Altman, a social scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and leader of the project, says the most important result is transparency.
“It opens up the debate about the plans themselves,” said Dr. Altman. “Maps can be pretty obscure and hard to interpret, but they’re essentially policy proposals in the form of a drawing. Public redistricting lets people see what they’re actually proposing – what to expect with party fairness, minority districts and what communities are impacted.”
This transparency ensures legislators justify their choices.
“Sometimes these decisions go to court, and it allows the courts to see that more competitive and representative plans are available,” said Dr. Altman.
Still, experts raise concern about the process.
“Asking the public to draw their own maps gives it a veneer that we’re all involved in the process,” said Joshua Ryan, a political scientist at Utah State University. “But at the end of the day, the legislature will do what it wants since it is a one-party dominated state. The Republican Party is going to make sure they’re drawing districts that are favorable to them, which is not unusual.”
Ryan’s skepticism is well-founded, especially for contentious congressional and state elections. It’s compounded by Utah’s convoluted redistricting process, which funnels through two groups before review by lawmakers.
The recently enacted Independent Redistricting Commission, a team of mapping experts that spend hours drawing maps without regard to political parties, is purely advisory. Their proposals must go through a Legislative Redistricting Committee, which will submit plans for legislators to approve or deny.
The past three cycles, the legislature has rejected even the plans proposed the the Legislative Redistricting Committee, instead drawing their own boundaries.
On a more local level, providing feedback can certainly make an impact. The current school board map was created by Robert Horning, a software engineer from Logan, in 2011. It was adopted with minor tweaks.
“Congressional redistricting is more political. But when you get down to cities and boards, it’s not as polarized,” said Dr. Altman of the Public Mapping Project.
Participating can also help when negotiating local boundaries. Residents know their area best. If a proposal does not capture their community well, they can raise concerns.
“We want people to see maps and say ‘that’s my community. That represents where I live and the values that I believe in,’” said Rex Facer, chair of the Independent Redistricting Commission. “We want the people’s voice to be heard in that process.”
“Don’t be afraid to try the mapping tool,” said Senator Scott Sandall, Chair of the Legislative Redistricting Committee. “You can become familiar with it quickly, and the more you use it, the better you are at it.”
Solutions in practice
To draw a map, visit redistricting.utah.gov and click “Draw Maps.” When submitting your plan, make sure to justify why you chose the boundaries you did and state what is most important to you. Make sure to submit the same plan on the Independent Redistricting Commission’s website at uirc.utah.gov, too. If you can attend one of the Legislative Redistricting Committee’s public hearings taking place statewide, the committee recommends doing so to voice your opinions in person.