Independent commission’s proposed congressional maps would give Utah Dems a slight boost, analysis shows

Utah lawmakers will consider — but can ignore — the bipartisan panel’s recommendations.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rex Facer II speaks at a news conference held by the Utah’s bipartisan redistricting panel in Taylorsville on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021.

Democrats would gain ground in the hunt for a Utah congressional seat with the redistricting maps brought forward this week by an independent state commission, according to an analysis by the website FiveThirtyEight.

The three designs approved by the commission are each projected to yield one blue-leaning congressional district — and in one of the proposals, the Democrats would have a solid advantage, the analysis indicates. In all of the drafted maps, Republicans would have a strong upper hand in Utah’s remaining three congressional districts.

The state’s existing districts all tilt red, according to FiveThirtyEight, with Republican U.S. Rep. Burgess Owens occupying the lone competitive seat after ousting Democrat Ben McAdams last year.

But Rex Facer II, chairman of Utah’s bipartisan redistricting panel, said the group’s proposals don’t reflect any effort to help one party over another and that members were committed to keeping partisan politics out of their deliberations.

“There haven’t been discussions about whether this is going to benefit Republicans or whether this is going to benefit Democrats,” he said. “This is about how well are we capturing the interests of the citizens of Utah.”

It’s not clear how influential the independent commission’s designs will be as state lawmakers conduct their own parallel map-drawing process. The Legislature’s redistricting committee is expected to look at the independent group’s suggestions during a Nov. 1 meeting but, by law, it can disregard these maps if it chooses.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Rep. Paul Ray, who’s co-chairing the Legislature’s committee, said he hasn’t been paying attention to the independent commission work as he’s been focusing on his own panel’s statewide public outreach effort.

“Once they present those [maps] to us, we’ll review them and we’ll see where they fit into what we’re working on,” the Clearfield Republican said. “You know, how close we are to theirs and what their explanation of their maps are.”

Debate over Utah’s election maps has long focused on whether to keep left-leaning Salt Lake City-area voters in one district or dilute them across the four districts — a decision that helps determine whether Democrats have a shot at one of the state’s congressional seats.

Tensions boiled over during Monday evening’s independent commission meeting, where former GOP congressman Rob Bishop abruptly resigned his post on the panel after voicing frustration with the drafted maps.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at some of these maps and see what will happen,” Bishop said. “I can guarantee you there will be three Republicans and one Democrat elected for each of the next five cycles. It’s simply the way the map is drawn.”

On the heels of Bishop’s departure, Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, a Republican, said he shared these concerns and viewed the former congressman’s exit as “further evidence that the duly elected representatives of the people are best suited to redraw district boundaries.”

Katie Wright, executive director of the anti-gerrymandering group Better Boundaries, noted that Wilson himself appointed Bishop and voted in favor of a 2020 bill that set up the current bipartisan independent districting process.

The independent group’s proposals are the product of hundreds of comments and maps submitted by residents from around the state, Wright said. And with that level of engagement, she believes the Legislature will have no choice but to take notice.

“Utahns are paying attention all across the state. We’ve heard people say, ‘Hey, please don’t divide my community. Please keep my city intact,’” she said. “And I really hope and think that we’ll see maps that ultimately reflect that because it makes sense.”

While those who support a Salt Lake City-based district have accused the Republican supermajority in the Legislature of gerrymandering, Ray contends that drawing congressional boundaries around these urban voters would create the same problem.

“If the roles were reversed and we were like, hey, let’s put a doughnut here and create a completely red district, they’re going to scream, the press is going to scream gerrymandering,” he said. “And it goes both ways.”

Facer said the independent commission put forward doughnut proposals but also a pizza-style map that slices Salt Lake City up into different districts.

“We have maps of both flavors, if you will,” he said.

To promote a fair redistricting process amid this debate, the state’s voters in 2018 passed the ballot initiative to set up the independent commission that has been working on maps in recent months.

The state Legislature last year rewrote the anti-gerrymandering law approved by voters. The ballot measure never required legislators to adopt the independent commission’s maps, but the changes passed in 2020 eliminated a requirement that lawmakers at least take a yes-or-no vote on the proposals.

The original voter initiative prohibited the independent redistricting group from drawing boundaries specifically to protect incumbents or promote a political party. The revised version approved by the Legislature contains a slightly looser provision requiring the commission to craft its own internal rules “prohibiting purposeful or undue favoring or disfavoring” of parties or candidates.

To that end, Facer said Tuesday, the independent commission did not look at partisan data or at where incumbents live as they’ve developed their map recommendations.

Lawmakers will make a final decision on the new maps during a special session tentatively scheduled for the week of Nov. 15.