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Did costly public participation efforts matter in redistricting? Experts say no.

Two months ago, we asked if everyday Utahns could help solve the puzzle of redistricting. As the dust settles, we follow up with those involved.

(Shane Burke | The Salt Lake Tribune) The most frequently used words in public feedback on Utah's redistricting portal.

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This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

Two months ago, we reported on Utah’s push for public participation in the redistricting process. Through user-submitted map submissions, community forums, and the work of a newly-appointed Independent Redistricting Commission, legislators touted Utah citizens’ power to make an impact on the process. Experts insisted the majority party would still have their way in the process, but legislators involved maintained users could make a real change on the local level.

But earlier this month, when Utah’s Legislative Redistricting Committee released a series of their own new maps in the eleventh hour that divided Salt Lake County into four pieces, the hundreds of hours of work and over a million dollars of investment in equitable redistricting programs seemed moot. Their preferred map was published late Friday night for a vote the following Monday, a move civic groups like Better Utah said stifled public comment on the matter. Thousands of Utahns expressed their opposition in the weekend to follow, but with little opportunity for redress: the map was passed last week.

As expected, the map favors the Republican Party, but so did plenty of the maps the public and the state’s Independent Redistricting Commission created -- maps that were rated well by Princeton University’s nonpartisan Gerrymandering Project. Rex Facer, chair of the independent commission, asserts this map was chosen to ensure Republican control until at least 2030 as Utah attracts more Democratic transplants from out of state.

“When our analysts ran the data, out of 100,000 [randomly created maps], there were only 0.5% that produced the political outcomes the legislature had, meaning it’s guaranteed to have four Republican seats every election for the next ten years,” Facer said.

“We never indicated the legislature was nonpartisan,” said Sen. Scott Sandall, chair of the Legislative Redistricting Committee, in response to that figure. “I don’t think there was ever any idea or suggestion that the legislative work wouldn’t include some partisanship.”

Much of this outcome has to do with the convoluted structure of redistricting in Utah. In 2018, voters chose to create the independent commission through a proposition, but the legislature quickly chipped away at its powers, making it solely advisory.

Experts argue the congressional maps are not similar to proposed ones

Public participation and the work of the Independent Redistricting Commission ended in plenty of maps to consult, but participants don’t think the final Congressional lines resemble theirs much at all.

“There are a couple of places where we did see a similarity between a line drawn in one district or another, but they were very far and few between,” said Facer.

Joshua Ryan, a political scientist at Utah State University who months ago called the process a veneer, says this fits what could be expected from a majority party calling the shots and is worth the scrutiny for their purposes.

Public input and the work of the Independent Redistricting Committee, Ryan notes, ”doesn’t appear to have played much of a role in how they drew the districts. It might have brought a lot more attention to the process, which isn’t great for them, but they’re willing to trade off the brief negative media attention for the long-term structural advantage in the state.”

Senator Sandall insists there was some user feedback taken into account when drawing certain lines, especially in the west of the state and in lower-profile elections like the school board.

Beyond this, the Independent Redistricting Commission had different priorities than the legislature. The Independent Redistricting Commission was not allowed to take party statistics or current officeholders’ home addresses into account, while the final maps focused on both.

Facer said their team didn’t use those because they wanted to avoid bias in the maps.

Stuart Hepworth, a University of Utah student and self-described “redistricting geek” who submitted several maps, felt disheartened but not surprised by the end results of the process. He believes the maps are gerrymandered for sure, even calling the lines the “Sandall-mander.”

In response to accusations of gerrymandering, Sandall said that packing Democrats into their own district would also be a form of gerrymandering.

Hepworth was especially disgruntled at the insistence on these maps offering a fair split between Utah’s rural and city interests.

“The urban-rural split thing was nothing more than a pretext for gerrymandering,” said Hepworth, pointing out this was the case in the past few cycles as well. “They proved it by passing over the maps from members of the public and the Independent Redistricting Commission that had an urban-rural split and did it better, but wouldn’t have been acceptable to them because it wouldn’t be good for solidly Republican districts.”

The final maps split communities, but that’s legal in Utah

The biggest gripe towards the current Congressional maps is that it dissects prominent Utah communities into pieces. Salt Lake City was cut into two pieces -- Millcreek is split into four.

“It really does appear that keeping communities together was not a priority, especially looking at communities in Salt Lake County,” said Facer. “Salt Lake City doesn’t have to be split up, and yet it is. I’ve heard people say you’re just trying to protect Salt Lake City, but the answer is no, we’re trying to protect all of our cities. The message we heard time and time again, whether we were in rural Utah or urban Utah, was to keep cities together.”

Senator Sandall says a split was inevitable.

“The lines have to go somewhere, and no matter where you draw a line, one of your neighbors will be on the opposite side,” Sandall said. “In the end, it’s completely impossible to do that across the state and some people are going to be disgruntled.”

Still, there were plenty of suggestions that split Salt Lake County into two pieces, rather than four.

Sandall insists he’s heard generally good feedback in his texts and emails, but hundreds of negative comments on the online redistricting portal and protests at the State Capitol suggest public opinion is more mixed.

Still, the splitting of communities is entirely legal, said Joshua Ryan of USU.

“At least at the federal level, the Supreme Court has repeatedly said states can do what they want, aside from violating some federal laws that have to do with race,” Ryan said. “While they should try to keep communities of interest together, it becomes very difficult to define what is a community of interest. There’s no constitutional requirement at the federal level that they must do that. I would be shocked if the federal courts stepped in.”

Those involved in the process are disheartened but grateful for support

In the end, the public participation in the redistricting process does seem like a veneer, according to experts. But though this has upset many Utahns and wasted resources, any further pushback is unlikely, since it’s entirely legal.

Despite the letdown, Facer and the Independent Redistricting Commission have seen a glimpse of hope in the ensuing public outcry.

“My biggest takeaway is how grateful we are for the support of the public,” Facer said. “I think that shows they believe that what we did was clear, transparent and done without an agenda.”

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