Redistricting process results in bad blood between Utah lawmakers and anti-gerrymandering group

Speaker Brad Wilson says he regrets the 2020 compromise that saved Proposition 4 from repeal.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, during a special session at the State Captiol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 19, 2021.

House Speaker Brad Wilson sat in a high-backed chair in his office at the Utah Capital on Wednesday evening following an intense two-day special session. Lawmakers tackled several thorny issues, including the Dixie State University name change and pushing back against federal vaccine mandates.

But, it was the once-a-decade redistricting process that had the Kaysville Republican frustrated. It was clear he was tired of being asked why the Legislature “ignored the will of the people” by not adopting the maps from the independent redistricting commission.

Wilson was especially irked by criticism from Better Boundaries, the group behind the 2018 voter-approved initiative that established the independent commission.

“The independent redistricting initiative created an expectation that the Legislature wouldn’t be involved in this process. That an outside group would do this,” Wilson said. “That was an unfair expectation set by Better Boundaries.”

The maps approved by lawmakers drew howls of protest when they were made public late last week. The congressional map was immediately branded as an unfair gerrymander because it chopped up Salt Lake County among the four districts.

A tenuous compromise turns into a messy divorce

Proposition 4, backed by Better Boundaries, created the independent map-drawing commission and gave them primary responsibility for redrawing the state’s political maps every 10 years. Voters narrowly approved the measure in 2018.

The Utah Constitution specifies the Legislature is responsible for dividing up the state during redistricting. Lawmakers were blocked from making changes to maps submitted by the independent committee. The Legislature was allowed to reject the maps from the commission in favor of its own, but they were required to explain why their own better satisfied the list of requirements spelled out in the law. Additionally, private citizens could go to court to block a map approved by the Legislature if they believed it did not adhere to those requirements.

Those restrictions led many lawmakers to believe Proposition 4 was unconstitutional, and they were confident the law would be struck down if they sued. Others felt that constitutional conflict would justify an outright repeal by the Legislature.

Wilson said he is starting to regret not taking that path because he believes Better Boundaries is operating in bad faith and whipping up public sentiment against lawmakers.

“I’m beginning to wonder if we should have let what they did, which was unconstitutional, just stay unconstitutional,” he said.

Instead, lawmakers and Better Boundaries came together to find a compromise, which they did in 2020. The independent commission would be preserved but relegated to an advisory role.

That compromise almost didn’t happen, according to Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, who was a key player in the negotiations.

“When we came to the table to address the constitutional issues with Better Boundaries, we agreed the commission would take an advisory role and the Legislature would not necessarily pick its maps,” he explained.

Bramble says there is one other important but unspoken element to the agreement.

“We knew Better Boundaries was going to have the bully pulpit on this issue, especially if we didn’t pick their maps,” Bramble added.

That’s exactly what happened this year and one of the reasons Wilson believes the group has been acting in bad faith. Accusations that lawmakers were subverting the will of the people were a common refrain from the public and in the media that Better Boundaries helped to amplify.

Katie Wright, executive director for Better Boundaries, counters it was legislative leaders who are not operating in good faith.

“It’s cynical to think that voters are misguided when they expect lawmakers to respect initiatives passed in an election or a compromise that was resoundingly supported by the Legislature,” Wright said.

Wright says Better Boundaries came to the bargaining table because they were worried the initiative would be repealed, and they wanted to preserve as much of the independent map-drawing process as they could.

A reasonable argument could be made the maps adopted by the Legislature were rushed through the process. Fewer than 110 hours passed between their introduction and final passage. Wright says Wilson and his colleagues have no one to blame but themselves for the public outcry.

“The Legislature ignored the independent commission’s maps entirely and instead adopted maps that were drawn behind closed doors, are partisan gerrymandered, and slice and dice communities,” Wright said. “Utahns deserve better, and we intend to pursue what makes that possible.”

What’s next?

Both lawmakers and Better Boundaries are already mulling their next moves.

Wilson is questioning whether the independent commission process as it currently stands was worth the time and money.

“We were trying to give the voters who supported the initiative, which barely passed, an opportunity to see if what they were suggesting might work. And we found out it didn’t work great,” Wilson said. “But there was an expectation set by Better Boundaries that this was going to be the next best thing.”

Wilson has suggested the Legislature could make changes to the independent commission, but that is not a top priority now since the next redistricting cycle is a decade from now.

Wright says there is a menu of options on the table for Better Boundaries.

The group launched a political action committee, which will allow them to influence future elections. They also are mulling legal action to possibly challenge the maps passed this week.

Better Boundaries also is making noise about a future ballot initiative to “repeal and replace” those maps. The Utah Constitution prohibits a referendum to repeal a law passed by the Legislature by a two-thirds vote. But it is unclear whether that prohibition extends to redistricting maps, and the issue has not been tested in court.

Even if such an initiative were allowed to proceed and was successful, nothing is stopping the Legislature from repealing or drastically altering the initiative after it passed. However, it probably is safe to say neither side would be willing to compromise, especially after this week.