Gerrymander or no gerrymander? Committee advances Utah Congressional map that split Salt Lake County across 4 districts

Legislative committee rejects maps from independent commission in favor of legislative proposals.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Members of the public react to public comment in House Building, Room 30, Nov. 8, 2021.The public got to respond on Monday to the Utah LegislatureÕs Redistricting Committee's only public hearing for the map proposals.

Should political maps be drawn without regard to politics? Dozens of frustrated voters packed a hearing room on Monday afternoon to make public comments and vent their frustrations at the Republican-controlled committee tasked with drawing new political boundaries that the state will use for the next decade.

From a public perception standpoint, lawmakers certainly didn’t do themselves any favors when they rolled out their proposed maps late Friday evening, less than 72-hours before Monday’s hearing.

Those long-awaited maps bore very little resemblance to the maps submitted by the Utah Independent Redistricting Commission last week.

The proposed congressional map from the Legislature split Salt Lake County across the four districts, which sparked almost immediate outrage and accusations of gerrymandering, mostly from residents of Salt Lake City and County. Many were infuriated that a large part of the capital city is lumped in with St. George, which lies 300 miles to the south.

Committee co-chair Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, brushed off that criticism.

“The committee followed a rigorous process to ensure the maps reflect the priority of Utahns,” Ray said. “We’ve made decisions that we think best reflect the will of the people we represent.”

Lawmakers patiently sat for nearly three hours as frustrated voters, both in-person and online, accused the committee of gerrymandering directly to their faces. The most frequent complaint was the rejection of the map proposals that came from the voter-approved independent commission.

“That group went out of their way to remain apolitical. You have done the opposite of that. This (the committee) is a group of people who want to retain control and refuse to listen to the voice and will of the people,” David Timmerman told the legislators.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Stephen Trimble, left, and Salt Lake City mayor Erin Mendenhall speak in opposition to the Utah Legislature's Redistricting Committee's only public hearing for the map proposals, Nov. 8, 2021.

The public comment brought several top elected Democrats to the Hill, too.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said it was clear the city was united against the maps proposed by the Legislature and urged the adoption of the independent commission’s maps.

“Please do what the people have clearly asked you to do,” Mendenhall said.

Amy Fowler, chair of the Salt Lake City Council, said the congressional map from the Legislature failed on every metric.

“This effectively silences communities of color and disenfranchises urban voters,” said Fowler. “The maps dilute the voices of both rural and urban residents. We can do better for our state.”

An undercurrent of frustration with Utah’s current congressional delegation also drove many of those who showed up Monday, which popped up when Ray praised Congressman Chris Stewart, who represents much of the Salt Lake City area.

“A lot of people told us they wanted Chris Stewart as their congressman,” Ray said as the room erupted in a mix of laughter and groans.

“Maybe not you people,” Ray quickly retorted.

Is the congressional map gerrymandered?

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, left and redistricting committee chairman Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, right, in the House Building, Room 30, Nov. 8, 2021. Members of the public react in agreement to public comment by raising their hands in solidarity against the newly drawn redistricting maps on Monday, the only public hearing for the map proposals.

The easy answer is, yes. It’s difficult to find an explanation of how it’s not.

The four-way split in Salt Lake County is a technique known as “cracking,” which splits up political power across several districts.

The Legislature’s map would also divide up the state’s minority populations almost evenly across the four districts.

A preliminary analysis from FiveThirtyEight concluded that the four districts now overwhelmingly favor Republicans.

A mini melee broke out on Monday over an analysis of the congressional map from the nonpartisan Princeton Gerrymandering Project. On Saturday, after the maps were first made public, the group gave the map an “A” grade. That “A” grade was later rescinded. In a lengthy statement, the Princeton group harshly criticized the Legislature’s proposal for chopping up Salt Lake City and County and unnecessarily dividing communities.

It’s clear the GOP-controlled committee planned on using the “A” grade from the Princeton group as a shield against any accusations of gerrymandering and bristled at the retraction. On Monday afternoon, a thread posted on the committee’s social media ripped the downgrade and suggested the change was politically motivated since the group did not retract its grades of the maps submitted by Utah’s independent group.

“It leads us to wonder why tweets highlighting the congressional map’s overall A grade, including for partisan fairness, were removed,” they wrote on Twitter.

It’s evident Republicans are sensitive to the fact they’ll be accused of gerrymandering, especially after discarding the proposals from the independent commission. At one point Monday, the repeated reference of the Princeton group from commenters got under the skin of co-chair Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Orangeville, prompting him to reference the since-retracted A grade.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Over 100 people spoke in opposition to the Utah LegislatureÕs Redistricting Committee's only public hearing for the map proposals, Capitol's House Building, Room 30, Nov. 8, 2021.

How we got here

Monday’s hearing was the culmination of a process that began two decades ago.

In 2000, Democrat Jim Matheson surprisingly won election to Congress in Utah’s 2nd Congressional District, defeating Derek Smith, who knocked off incumbent Republican Merrill Cook for the GOP nomination.

A year later, during the 2001 redistricting cycle, the state narrowly missed out on gaining a fourth seat in the U.S. House. The state unsuccessfully sued, claiming overseas missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were not counted correctly, denying Utah an extra seat. That same year Utah lawmakers approved a map that an editorial from the steadfastly conservative Wall Street Journal called a “scam” that was clearly designed to defeat Matheson. Matheson defied the gerrymandered map and won the next five elections in that district.

In 2011, Utah finally gained another seat in Congress, which led to a “pizza pie” map that cut Salt Lake County into three pieces, combining them with large swathes of rural Utah. The gerrymander targeting Matheson in the 2nd District was so severe that year, he unexpectedly jumped to the newly-created 4th District, which critics said appeared to be tailor-made for then-state Rep. Carl Wimmer. Wimmer never got the chance to run for the seat as he lost the GOP nomination to then-Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love.

Matheson defied the odds again and squeaked past Love by fewer than 1,000 votes. The 4th District would pingpong between Republican and Democratic control for the rest of the decade, changing hands four times in five elections, despite a decided Republican advantage.

In 2018, voters narrowly passed Proposition 4, an anti-gerrymandering measure that established an independent commission to draw the new maps, but the Utah Constitution says only the Legislature has redistricting authority. A compromise struck in 2000 kept the independent commission alive but relegated it to an advisory role.

That brings us to Monday’s public hearing.

Lawmakers are free to adopt whatever maps they want, which is exactly what happened Monday evening, but not without some dissent from some on the committee.

“I won’t be voting for these maps because I don’t think they serve us well,” said Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City.

The congressional map passed on a straight party-line vote, with all of the Democrats voting no. It will be considered by the full Legislature during the special session which begins Tuesday.