It took fewer than 110 hours for a controversial proposal for redrawing Utah’s four congressional districts to move from public introduction to final approval in the Utah Legislature. It now heads to Gov. Spencer Cox, who has signaled he will sign it into law.
Outside, calls of “veto” and “shame” echoed around the south steps of the Utah Capitol Wednesday evening, where around 200 Utahns rallied on a chilly November night against the Legislature’s maps.
The warp speed passage of the boundaries that will determine Utah’s four members of the U.S. House of Representatives over the next decade received just two hours of committee debate and public comment and fewer than 90 minutes of floor debate in the Utah House and Senate.
Speakers at the rally against the map included U.S. Senate hopeful Evan McMullin, along with state Senate Democrats Derek Kitchen of Salt Lake City and Kathleen Riebe of Cottonwood Heights. Organizers urged attendees to register to vote, and to register to vote Republican, so they could vote in GOP primaries to help hold current officeholders accountable.
The map has drawn criticism as it divides Salt Lake County into all four districts, a technique gerrymandering experts call “cracking.”
The legislative map proposal favors Republicans far more than the current districts. For instance, the 4th Congressional District is currently considered mildly competitive since it swapped partisan control four times over the last decade. The new boundaries make it nearly impossible for a Democrat to win.
Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, who co-chaired the legislative committee tasked with drawing the maps, brushed off criticism that the process was railroaded.
“In the past, it took probably two weeks to complete a special session for redistricting. The timeline became a little bit out of our control,” Sandall said. “We wanted to give the independent commission as much time as it needed, and we had to accommodate county clerks who need time to digest the information.”
The bill passed on a 22-7 vote, which means there is sufficient support for the proposal if Cox were to veto the bill, which is unlikely. It also prevents any attempt to undo the map through a ballot referendum. Only Republicans voted in favor of the bill. All Democrats were joined by Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, in voting against.
During floor debate, Democrats pursued multiple lines of attack, hoping to convince Republicans to adopt different boundaries that did not divide up the state’s largest county four ways. None of them found pay dirt.
Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, was part of the legislative redistricting panel. She says the reasoning behind the four-way split in Salt Lake County and combining populous areas with the state’s rural areas was difficult to understand.
“I represent West Valley City, but we’re mixed up with communities that don’t have a lot of people. This is unacceptable,” Mayne said.
Mayne’s comment brought a sarcastic response from Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville.
“My heart bleeds for you, Sen. Mayne. It kind of gives you a little taste of what we get in rural Utah,” Hinkins said.
Kitchen brought up unfounded rumors circulating around the Capitol that national Republican groups, or groups tied to former President Donald Trump, were responsible for the map proposals.
“There have been some reports floating around the community that the congressional map we’ve got before us today was finalized in Florida before it was released to the public on Friday night,” Kitchen said, making an indirect reference to the current residence of the former president.
Legislative sources with knowledge of the process say the speculation that the final map came from Republican groups outside of Utah or from the former president’s political operation is not true.
Republicans voted down an attempt to replace the bill with a substitute based on a map from the independent redistricting commission.
During a Tuesday town hall meeting, Gov. Spencer Cox said it was unlikely he would veto the maps when they got to his desk.
Addressing the protest outside, McMullin didn’t hold back. “[Those in power are] dividing their opposition until its voice is too faint to be heard, and unrepresented in any meaningful way,” McMullin told the crowd of protesters from Capitol’s steps. “Today our legislature did that very thing.”
“Gerrymandering,” he said, “is a modern day form of taxation without representation.”