Utah’s redistricting process was — as always — rigged from the start, Robert Gehrke writes

Even with the clearly expressed will of the voters, it was naive to think GOP lawmakers would relinquish even a little power.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Last week, Utah’s Republican senators huddled in their regular caucus were each given a special sneak preview — a packet of papers showing what, as of now, their districts will look like after the redistricting process is complete.

The caucuses, of course, are closed to the public, but multiple sources familiar with the private meeting confirm that, in addition to the new boundaries, they were also given a spreadsheet with a partisan breakdown of the new districts so they could see what is in store for them.

The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because the first rule of Senate GOP caucus is you don’t talk about Senate GOP caucus.

At the end of the closed-door meeting, Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, the Senate chair of the redistricting committee, gathered up all the documents to ensure none of the details would leak out — because, frankly, the optics of this are pretty terrible.

For one thing, it shatters the myth that party politics and consolidation of power are not driving the entire process — if anyone ever actually believed that wasn’t the case. Partisan voting data isn’t, technically, supposed to be part of the considerations, but it invariably is.

More galling, though, is that days before the Utah Independent Redistricting Commission — the commission that a majority of Utah voters said they wanted to be drawing the maps — even finalized their recommendations, the train had already left the station.

The commissioners met 32 times since April and members and staff put in countless hours of work listening and refining and redrawing maps in a very public, transparent process, overcoming a pandemic and tight deadlines to finish the job.

For his part, Sandall said the legislative committee has been working on a parallel track as the independent commission and the two will merge when commissioners present to the Legislature on Nov. 1. He acknowledged there was discussion of partisan voting trends in Senate districts based on the past few cycles.

“There is much refining and discussion and much still to do in this process, including assessing what the independent commission recommends,” Sandall told me, noting he had been at the Capitol the prior three days working on maps. “Nothing is set in stone at this point, for sure.”

So maybe, when all is said and done, legislators will revise the map senators were given in caucus and move toward something like the independent commission presents.

I wouldn’t count on it.

Because we’ve seen how fiercely Republican legislative leaders guard their ability to dictate the political representation of the state and, unfortunately, how little they care about voters’ wishes.

Over in the House, members, I am told, have not seen a favored map, but House Speaker Brad Wilson is making clear who is calling the shots.

“The Legislature, by the state constitution, has the responsibility to make those decisions,” Wilson told reporters recently. “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.”

The obvious problem is that voters made clear their desire on redistricting, and now lawmakers are ignoring that. And when politicians choose who they will represent instead of the other way around, it makes a mockery of real accountability.

This writing has been on the wall since the beginning. It’s why I was pessimistic about the potential for the independent commission to make a real impact on the redistricting outcome.

It’s also why it’s hard to get too worked up about former Rep. Rob Bishop quitting the commission in a huff because he didn’t get the maps he wanted.

It didn’t matter, because the good-faith effort of this good group of independent commissioners to do what they thought was best for the citizens of Utah was always going to lose out to the self-interest of GOP politicians.

We know that because we’ve seen it before.

Ten years ago, for example, members of the Legislature’s redistricting commission made a big production of touring the state, gathering input and maps from the public. Then, the night before the last meeting the Republican National Committee dropped in a new congressional map that ended up being the one that was used, I was told by an individual close to the process.

Even though partisan voting data isn’t supposed to be a consideration, over the past three redistricting cycles I’ve covered, I’ve been told that every time a new map is spit out, both Republicans and Democrats immediately ship it to their headquarters to figure out who it ultimately benefits.

The only hope I can see to change the outcome is for Gov. Spencer Cox to face so much pressure from the public that he at least pushes for something closer to the commission’s recommendations, although that would surely anger his own party and gain him nothing in return.

So it leaves us essentially where we started before voters made the redistricting commission a reality in the first place. Or, as the late songwriter Leonard Cohen said: “Everybody knows the fight was fixed, the poor stay poor, the rich get rich. That’s how it goes. Everybody knows.”