Gov. Spencer Cox says he’s unlikely to veto the Legislature’s new maps

Utah lawmakers advance congressional, school board maps.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Smiling after a vote on a new Congressional District map is Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, in the House Chamber during a special legislative session, at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021.

With very little debate, the Utah House passed a controversial redrawing of the congressional map that critics have decried as a blatant gerrymander. Despite the criticism, Gov. Spencer Cox said Tuesday evening he was not inclined to veto the redistricting proposal.

The map divides up Salt Lake County across all four districts, a technique gerrymandering experts call “cracking,” which divides a political group into pieces in order to dilute its power.

“The challenge is the math. You literally cannot create four congressional districts and not divide up counties,” Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said Monday morning. He did not explain why the math dictated a four-way split in Salt Lake County.

“It’s easy to say you should keep Salt Lake County together. Why? What about Weber County? What about Washington County? There’s more than one county in the state,” he added.

The congressional maps as proposed virtually eliminate the chance that Utah could elect a Democrat to Congress in any of the four districts.

There were attempts on the House floor Tuesday to move some of the political lines.

Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, offered a counter proposal that created one district that could potentially elect a Democrat. He said creating a district that either party could win was important because the number of “swing districts” was rapidly disappearing.

“If we continue down this road where we eliminate all of the swing districts, my fear is we get to a place where the U.S. House doesn’t change,” Ward said. “This is the number of Republican seats and this is the number of Democratic seats. See you in 10 years. I don’t think our country is served by that.”

His alternative was voted down, as were other maps offered by Democrats.

House Republican leaders spent a good part of Tuesday afternoon counting noses in their caucus, making sure the congressional map proposal had the 50 votes required to stave off a possible veto by Gov. Spencer Cox and prevent a referendum to put the maps to a vote of the public. The 50-vote threshold also provides room for some of the more vulnerable Republicans in Salt Lake County to vote against the maps while not having any effect on the outcome.

They got there, but just barely. The congressional map passed 50-22. Democrats were joined by five Republicans who voted no.

The congressional map now moves to the state Senate.

In a Facebook Live on Tuesday evening, Cox said he has no plans to veto the Legislature’s maps, noting that the congressional proposal cleared the House by a supermajority. He said he’s been told the Senate can also pass the plan with a veto-proof majority.

“I’m a very practical person. I’m not a bomb-thrower, and I believe in good governance,” he said. “I’ve been told that just a veto just for the sake of a veto is something that I should do. I just think that that’s a mistake.”

He acknowledged the redistricting process can be frustrating, especially for those who feel they get shortchanged by it, but he said the Utah Constitution clearly gives state legislators authority over the process.

Senate approves school board map

The Senate passed an updated version of a state school board map, one that would keep Uinta Basin counties in the same district and included some changes to boundaries in southern Utah.

Sen. Scott Sandall said the revised map would also make sure each elected school board member would represent at least two local districts.

“This will ensure that no school board member is able to concentrate their vote, influence or power on behalf of the voters of one large district,” the Tremonton Republican told colleagues.

Later, he added that school board members “need that dual perspective so that they have to be accountable to voters in both areas and can homogenize to some degree their decisions that affect every student in the state with the decisions that they make, not just those that are in their neighborhoods.”

But Sen. Kathleen Riebe argued that this system breaks up Salt Lake County, expressing particular concern about the impact on lower-income communities.

“It seems like we’re working to dilute their voices instead of amplify them, for our most impacted districts and students,” said the Cottonwood Heights Democrat who works as a teacher.

Riebe offered a different map that, she said, was based on guidance from educators and would keep more of these communities intact. The Senate rejected it and passed Sandall’s version on a party-line vote, with Democrats objecting. It now heads to the House.

Backlash against the map proposals

The anti-gerrymandering group Better Boundaries released a blistering statement Tuesday that argued the Legislature’s proposed maps are “specifically splitting towns and cities for partisan purposes and favoring incumbent politicians.”

The group announced it was exploring legal and legislative remedies for its concerns and the possibility of running a ballot initiative to repeal and replace election district maps if it feels they are unfairly drawn. It is also opening a political action committee seeded with $50,000 to “pursue electoral consequences” against sitting state lawmakers.