Is Utah’s independent redistricting commission a success? Depends on who you ask.

Independent map-drawing group will present their map proposals to lawmakers on Monday

(Jeff Parrott | The Salt Lake 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.

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Utah’s independent redistricting commission is set to give their proposals for Utah’s new political boundaries to lawmakers on Monday. But, there are already questions about the role and effectiveness of the independent body.

If you listen to House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Clearfield, it certainly sounds like he doesn’t think the independent maps will be the final product when the maps are finalized.

“The Legislature, by the state constitution, has the responsibility to make those decisions,” Wilson said Wednesday afternoon. “We will take feedback from the commission and the hundreds of maps the public has submitted. The people who are accountable to the voters will be the ones that will make the final decision.”

Utah lawmakers are not required to adopt any of the independent maps or even incorporate their ideas since the commission is only in an advisory role. Wilson’s statement on Wednesday is the clearest signal so-far from lawmakers that they do not feel any political pressure to abide by anything the independent group comes up with.

The independent commission was knocked for a loop earlier this week with the sudden resignation of former congressman Rob Bishop, who complained that the process was giving short shrift to the rural areas of the state while focusing too much on the urban parts.

“That urban/rural mix is important, especially when it comes to the congressional maps,” Bishop said on Wednesday.

Bishop pointed out that none of the commission’s members came from southern or central Utah, denying those regions a voice during map-drawing.

He said when he was in Congress, having all of the members of the delegation representing both populations made sure they were all on the same page.

“For Utah to get anything done, you need a united House delegation. When a proposal detrimental to Utah comes forward, having everyone working together to oppose it is very forceful,” Bishop said.

The map proposals the commission approved this week would give a slight boost to Democrats in the state according to an analysis done by FiveThirtyEight. That result is almost sure to set off a furious debate over the role of the independent commission when they formally present those maps to the Utah Legislature on Monday.

“I expect the independent commission maps to be adopted,” Katie Wright, executive director of Better Boundaries, says.

Her organization was behind the 2018 voter-approved initiative that established the independent redistricting process. She says the bipartisan group came up with their map proposals after exhaustive public input, which should put a lot of pressure on members of the legislative committee.

“For lawmakers to ignore these maps would be extremely challenging,” Wright said.

Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, who was one of the architects of the 2020 compromise between the Legislature and Better Boundaries that led to the independent map-drawing process as it currently exists, says the committee went out of their way to draw maps that disadvantage the state’s dominant political party.

“The great hope was people would sit down in a fair-minded environment and come up with something we all can live with. That clearly didn’t happen,” Bramble said.

Bramble points out that the state Senate map proposals all divide Provo in a way that combines Republican lawmakers into the same districts. Utah County has not elected a Democrat to the Legislature since 1994.

Bishop alleges the supposedly nonpartisan commission was highly aware of the GOP dominance in Utah, leading them to overcompensate in the opposite direction.

“Partisanship was in the forefront of their minds. They were wanting to enhance the ability of the minority party to win,” Bishop said.

Republicans in the Legislature have been mostly hostile to the idea of an independent commission since voters approved the ballot initiative in 2018. But, as lawmakers are often quick to point out, Prop. 4 barely passed by fewer than 7,000 votes.

After this year’s process is finished, it is a good bet that lawmakers will revisit how the independent commission operates to find ways to improve it.

“I think Bishop’s resignation shines a bright light on the fact that this maybe isn’t working the way it was envisioned to. We may need to go back to the drawing board and determine whether this process makes sense,” Wilson said.