Utahns have one week to submit input on the state’s new voting districts, or wait another 10 years

The Utah Independent Redistricting Commission will deliver their final report to the Legislature on Nov. 1, but lawmakers get the final say.

(Jeff Parrott | The Tribune) Utah Independent Redistricting Commission Commissioner Christine Durham, Chair Rex L. Facer II and Commissioner William A. Thorne Jr. at a public hearing in Layton, Utah on Friday, Oct. 16, 2021.

Layton • Utahns who want to have a say in the once-a-decade redistricting of the state’s electoral boundaries have just one week and one day left to share their input to the Utah Independent Redistricting Commission (UIRC).

The UIRC will stop taking public comment after Oct. 23, before finalizing and submitting their recommendations to state lawmakers on the afternoon of Nov. 1. Then, the UIRC report — which will include three sets of maps outlining potential federal congressional districts, Utah Senate and House districts and school board districts — will be in the hands of the Legislature.

Commission Executive Director Gordon M. Haight II told The Salt Lake Tribune late Friday night, after a nearly three-hour public hearing on the UIRC’s work in Layton, that he doesn’t want to submit their report to lawmakers alone.

“I’d love for the public to be at the meeting,” he said of the Nov. 1, 2 p.m. meeting when the commission will deliver the report to the Capitol.

The UIRC is the creation of a successful 2018 ballot initiative, Proposition 4, which attempted to curb gerrymandering in the Beehive State. But, the Legislature extracted the commission’s legal teeth in 2020, removing language in Proposition 4 that strictly prevented the drawing of voting districts with incumbents or political parties in mind.

The bill signed by former Gov. Gary Herbert in 2020 has softer language and prohibits “the purposeful or undue favoring or disfavoring of” incumbents, candidates and political parties by the commission. The bill also eliminated some transparency and accountability language that would have required the Legislature to take a yes-or-no vote on the commission’s suggested maps and a requirement to explain any rejections of the report publicly.

Katie Wright, the executive director of Better Boundaries, the anti-gerrymandering group that fought for passage of Proposition 4, told The Tribune that the bill passed by the Legislature in 2020 is not what Utahns voted for in 2018.

“The voters really gave their voice that they want to keep the counties and communities intact. And they understand that lawmakers work very hard, but they’re conflicted,” she said, and further explained that Proposition 4 originally would have removed the conflict of interest of legislators parsing the state.

Wright, who was at Friday’s hearing and said she’s been to several of the independent commission’s roadshows, has been impressed with their expertise and the people supporting their redistricting efforts.

“They really know the task at hand. And so they’re able to have really constructive, productive conversation,” she said of the commissioners and staff. “I think that’s really important.”

The joint business meeting and public hearing Friday evening lasted 15 minutes shy of three hours. About 20 members of the public took seats inside Layton City Hall and nearly half had questions or comments for the commissioners.

A man who said he lived in Bountiful began his five minutes of individual comment time by telling the commissioners that the audience was deeply appreciative of the “almost impossible task” the commission has to draw new voting districts. He was worried about partisanship.

“What are the checks on the Legislature so that they will create a nonpartisan, equal balance of districting,” he asked the commissioners. “You mentioned the requirements they place on you. Do they have any?”

Former Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine Durham, one of the seven independent restricting commissioners answered: “There are virtually none, short of public opinion and the people’s willingness to leave legislators in office who are willing to undertake redistricting with partisan considerations in play.”

“That’s one of the reasons why we feel so strongly about our work. We hope that our work will stand on its own and provide another perspective that we hope will have an influence because our work is completely nonpartisan,” she said of the commission.

“Everyone here supports you,” the man told the commissioners. “We are in a situation where the Legislature is choosing its voters, rather than voters are choosing the legislature ... There are people being left out, there are voices that are not being heard, and that is not a good thing,” he said.

Matt Cannon, the UIRC’s legal counsel, said on Friday that discussion would continue next week to remedy the tension of the legal requirements of the commission and “the practical realities” redistricting.

Most of the people who attended the hourslong meeting stayed for its entirety, and after the public comment period, listened through another hour of commission business. One of the meeting’s speakers was Cassidy Hansen, a policy analyst with UIRC.

After the meeting, Hansen told The Tribune that members of the public who still wanted to offer their input on the commission’s redistricting efforts could do so online at uirc.utah.gov. She thought the working maps already uploaded to the website are helpful and allow Utahns to input their suggestions directly on the maps.

The commission does look at city and counties lines but relies on public comment to understand the community nuances of informal neighborhoods and local economic districts.

Hansen and other members of the UIRC staff discussed the different digital tools and algorithms used by the commission to make the monumental task of dividing up Utah into new voting districts more manageable. But, Hansen said, humans are still better at redistricting than computer software.

“No algorithm that draws a map is going to know about how the students in this school district in south Moab need to be together,” she said.

There are two final public hearings on the commission’s schedule: Oct. 21 at 6 p.m. in Herriman and Oct. 23 at 11 a.m. in West Valley.