With the crack of the gavel on Wednesday evening, the political lines for the Beehive state were solidified for the next decade. The Utah Legislature completed the once-a-decade redistricting process that shifts the boundaries for the state’s four congressional seats, the 104 state House and Senate districts, and the State School Board.
The process was marred by accusations of gerrymandering and anger over the wholesale rejection of map proposals from the newly formed independent redistricting commission.
It’s difficult to argue the congressional map approved by lawmakers is not a gerrymander. It chops up Salt Lake County, the state’s most populous, into four pieces. That’s a technique known as “cracking,” which intentionally breaks up a geographic area or demographic group to dilute their political impact.
Lawmakers repeatedly talked about the advantages of mixing rural and urban interests in the same district, which they claim ensures the needs of both are met. In theory, it’s a nice idea, but it creates a confusing geographic goulash in practice.
Three of the congressional districts are massive and combine disparate parts of the state.
For instance, the newly drawn 2nd District covers more than 40,000 square miles — nearly half the state. That’s larger than the entire state of Indiana. It contains large parts of Salt Lake City and West Valley City, lumping them in with Tooele and St. George.
Lawmakers said they did not use partisan voting data to draw the new maps. There’s no denying the congressional map got a lot more favorable to Republicans.
The 4th Congressional District ping-ponged between Republican and Democratic control over the last decade. The new district lines make it almost impossible for a Democrat to win, jumping from an R+15 partisan advantage under the old lines to R+31 now.
Nonetheless, here is a dashboard, with metrics for the Congressional map.— Princeton Gerrymandering Project (@princetongerry) November 9, 2021
It would elect four Republicans to Congress and splits the Salt Lake City region into all four districts. It also has no competitive seats.https://t.co/gqkv7FmhpY pic.twitter.com/HSV2X9yUrW
The state House and Senate maps shifted lines because of explosive population growth in urban areas of the state and a shrinking rural population. Those urban districts grew more compact, while rural boundaries expanded to make sure they contained roughly equal population numbers.
The nonpartisan Princeton Gerrymandering Project gave the state House map an overall B grade, but it was given a failing grade for “competitiveness.” The analysis says 61 of the 75 seats in the House clearly favor Republicans, while just nine favor Democrats. Only five can be considered “competitive.” All of the seats that favor Democrats are in Salt Lake County.
The new House maps pushed some incumbents into the same district, which means they’ll have to face off against each other if they want to stay on Capitol Hill. Democrat Suzanne Harrison and Republican Jeff Stenquist were both drawn into the same seat in Draper. Republicans Mike Winder and Judy Weeks-Rohner now occupy the same area in West Valley City.
The Senate map was given an A grade primarily because it is more competitive. Twenty-three of 29 seats strongly favor Republicans, while four lean toward Democrats. Only two districts can be considered competitive, none of them are outside of Salt Lake County.
The map-drawing process this year sparked some outrage after the Legislature’s redistricting commission discounted the maps introduced by the independent redistricting commission. Some said lawmakers ignored the “will of the people” by rejecting the maps from the independent commission. House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Clearfield, rejected those claims.
“There’s a narrative out there that we didn’t listen to the independent commission. That’s just false. We listened to their ideas and considered their maps,” he said. “But the Legislature not only has a statutory responsibility but a Constitutional responsibility for these maps.”
In 2018, voters narrowly approved Prop. 4, creating the independent redistricting group. Originally, they would draw the new maps, which lawmakers could either accept or reject wholesale, and they were not allowed to make any changes.
Opponents said the independent body was unconstitutional as the Legislature has sole authority over redistricting according to the Utah Constitution. Instead of having the independent commission struck down in court, a compromise was reached in 2020 that shifted it to an advisory role, but lawmakers were not required to accept any of its map proposals, which is exactly what happened this year.
There’s very little chance the maps will be overturned. Gov. Spencer Cox says he likely won’t issue a veto. Because the maps passed both the House and Senate with a two-thirds majority, a possible signature-gathering drive for a referendum to put the maps on the ballot for a public vote is not possible.
With the new boundaries in place, the 2022 election cycle is rapidly approaching. Candidates who plan to gather signatures to get on the ballot can begin that process in January, with the official candidate filing period coming in March.
While the state maps are set, several county governments still have to redraw their boundaries ahead of the 2022 election.