Packed committee rooms on Utah’s Capitol Hill have become de rigueur in recent weeks, but Monday’s crowded meeting of the Utah Legislative Redistricting Committee lacked the emotion and energy that has accompanied recent discussions around COVID0-19 vaccine mandates, critical race theory or unfounded allegations of election fraud.
The discussion Monday afternoon was more genteel as the Utah Independent Redistricting Commission presented their map proposals to the Legislative Redistricting Committee. But the lack of emotion and outbursts was no reflection of the high political stakes as lawmakers in the redistricting committee work to set the political boundaries that determine who will represent Utahns in Congress, in the Legislature and the State School Board for the next decade.
The extraordinary meeting was the culmination of more than three years of work. In 2018, voters approved Proposition 4, which established the independent commission, by fewer than 7,000 votes. Then in 2020, lawmakers reached an agreement with the group behind Prop. 4 to move the independent committee to an advisory role because the Utah Constitution vests redistricting authority with the Legislature.
After 16 public hearings across the state and hundreds of hours of map drawing, the independent commission settled on 12 map proposals, three each for Congress, state Senate, state House, and State School Board.
“Our understanding of the geography of Utah has improved by leaps and bounds. There are so many towns I’d never heard of that I’m now intimately familiar with,” commission member and former Utah Supreme Court Justice Christine Durham joked.
Also in the mix were thousands of comments from the public, which helped the commission further refine their proposed maps.
“That public process was really helpful to us as we felt like we wanted to truly reflect what the people desired in this mapmaking process,” commission member and former state Sen. Karen Hale said.
Committee members and commissioners spent more than an hour digging into the finer points of map drawing, discussing the decisions that led to putting lines in certain places. One likened the process to pushing in one side of a balloon only to see the opposite side bulge out.
Although members of the independent commission repeatedly stressed they did everything they could to avoid partisan politics with their map proposals, the topic was unavoidable.
The commission’s map proposals are likely a non-starter for the Republican-dominated Legislature. An analysis of the congressional proposals by FiveThirtyEight.com found a slight advantage for Democrats, in so much as instead of 4 GOP-leaning districts, there is at least one Democratic-leaning seat. The Princeton Gerrymandering project analyzed the congressional and legislative maps, giving 8 of 9 a grade of “A” for partisan fairness, while the remaining one was given a “B” grade.
Commission Chairman Rex Facer said those partisan breakdowns came after the commission finished its work.
“I can say with confidence that partisan information did not shape the commission’s maps. We were prohibited from the purposeful or undue favoring or disadvantaging of an incumbent elected official,” Facer said.
It’s unlikely the Legislative committee will accept any of the proposals wholesale, since the 20-member panel is engaged in its own parallel map-drawing process.
Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, seemingly acknowledged that reality, asking commission members what it would take for them to feel like their efforts have not been a waste of time.
“Under what scenario are you going to feel like all the work and effort you put into this is for naught?” Last said.
“I think what would be most offensive is if the commission were never to resurface again,” Facer replied.
Facer was referring to comments from House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, suggesting lawmakers need to revisit the independent commission and its process. Those remarks came after former Congressman Rob Bishop abruptly resigned from the commission last month, complaining the process was flawed and favored urban interests over rural needs.
In the end, lawmakers have to produce and adopt their own maps for the special session that begins on Nov. 9.
“Now, we’re going to kick the ball to you, and good luck,” Hillyard said.
The Redistricting Committee will meet on Monday, Nov. 8, to unveil its own maps and a special legislative session will start the following day.