The panel of Utah lawmakers who designed the state’s new election districts made a significant determination early on in their process: They weren’t going to consider communities’ ethnic and racial makeup as they were drawing new lines.
Federal law places strict guidelines on when lawmakers can use race data when they’re redistricting, and legislative attorneys in Utah cautioned that minority communities in the state hadn’t reached a threshold allowing legislators to tap into this information, said Rep. Paul Ray, who helped lead this year’s effort.
Despite that, some worry the election maps that will hold sway for the next decade will have negative consequences for communities of color, potentially muffling the voices of the state’s growing minority population.
Ernie Gamonal, a Utah Coalition of La Raza board member who kept a close eye on the redistricting process, argues that’s because legislators prioritized incumbency over keeping communities intact.
“[Lawmakers] valued their home addresses over people’s immutable characteristics,” he said.
Ray says he, like Gamonal, hopes to see more female and minority candidates elected in Utah. But that wasn’t up to the redistricting committee to decide, he continued.
“Our job was to divide the state based on population data, which I think we did a really good job of,” the Clearfield Republican said. “But I’m not sure it’s the Legislature’s job to mandate the diversity. ... The voters have to choose that. And we certainly didn’t go around trying to exclude anybody.”
Though Utah is still majority white, it’s been diversifying over the last decade, and minorities now make up nearly a quarter of the state’s population, according to new census numbers.
That increased diversity has started to show up at the local level on city councils and local school boards, state Rep. Angela Romero points out, but people of color still only hold a handful of Utah’s higher elected posts.
Whites occupy more than 90% of the seats in the Utah Legislature and five of six spots in the state’s delegation to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
Redistricting could play a big role in increasing the diversity among elected leaders, Romero, D-Salt Lake City, says.
But the recent round of congressional boundary-drawing quartered Salt Lake County, home to nearly half of the state’s Hispanic and Latino residents. The lines divide Salt Lake City and slice through part of West Valley City, the state’s first large majority-minority municipality.
Ray says legislators divided up the county in response to population changes and, though he didn’t analyze race data, noted that the map keeps Salt Lake City’s ethnically diverse west side in the same congressional district as most of West Valley City.
To him, complaints about segmenting Utah’s communities of color sometimes have partisan undertones and stem from concerns about splitting up left-leaning areas.
“I think the first mistake people make … is they assume that all minorities are Democrats, and that’s not true at all,” he said.
Arturo Morales LLan, chair of the Utah Republican Latino Coalition, said the finalized maps were the product of a “robust process” that drew upon input from voters around the state. No map, he said, would ever satisfy everyone.
‘Not a colorblind society’
Romero says the issues introduced and debated in the Legislature have shifted as more women and people of color get elected — but there’s still plenty of room for progress.
“We have a long way to go as a state. We have a long way to go as a country when we’re talking about race,” she said. “And redistricting definitely plays a huge role in that and who is going to be the voice for communities that have been left out of conversations.”
For some, the feeling of disenfranchisement is especially acute because this year was supposed to be different. Voters in 2018 approved an initiative to create an independent redistricting committee, envisioning the bipartisan group as a potential safeguard against gerrymandering.
To the dismay of many initiative proponents, the Legislature later weakened the initiative and largely ignored the independent commission’s work this year.
The independent group had gathered input from hundreds of Utahns about their communities of interest or areas with shared policy priorities. However, the Legislature’s final maps did not appear to preserve these communities and instead separated them into different districts — potentially making it harder for a single representative to balance competing needs of these various constituencies, according to the Princeton Gerrymandering Project.
While communities of interest can form around common economic, educational or environmental goals, Romero wishes the legislative redistricting committee could also have considered racial demographics as they were drawing the lines.
“I really feel like it’s important when you’re talking about communities of interest, you look at race and ethnicity,” she said. “We’re not a colorblind society.”
Rep. Karen Kwan also said she’s disappointed state lawmakers couldn’t look at this data, adding that the new congressional lines run “right through our ethnic communities” in Salt Lake County.
And while she was generally satisfied that the House maps didn’t break up these voters, she remained concerned about legislative boundary changes that altered representation for some communities. Her district no longer includes some areas where she’s long worked to build relationships and establish trust, she said.
“I’m hoping that those kinds of changes that have happened in all of our areas … that we can make sure that our communities of color are still being reached out to by the representatives that will then be representing them,” the Taylorsville Democrat said. “Hopefully, they are not going to be disenfranchised.”
Diversity in office
Gamonal said he had a tough time getting people involved in this year’s redistricting. Many marginalized communities feel alienated from government processes and decision-makers, he said, and don’t feel that their voices will count for much.
“They don’t feel at home or comfortable,” he said. “They certainly don’t feel entitled to have a say in the process.”
That sense of distance can also extend to the relationships with lawmakers elected after the redistricting ends, he added.
Minority residents in many parts of Utah don’t see anyone like them in their local governments or as their state legislators. Oftentimes, Gamonal said, they turn to officials who share their ethnic or racial background, even if these politicians are representing other parts of the state.
That can increase the weight on the handful of minority state legislators, he said, adding that Romero and other Hispanic and Latino lawmakers are “champions” for communities across the state.
“But at the end of the day, a constituent needs to be able to at least vote for somebody who they feel they can walk up to and approach and talk to,” he said. “I don’t think that these maps that the Legislature passed achieve that in the House or the Senate, and certainly not the congressional maps.”
There are barriers that could be confronting minority candidates, said Ray, but he thinks things like the cost of signature gathering and running for office is the problem rather than district maps.
And Morales LLan argues that communities of color in the state have plenty of opportunities to get involved in the political process — and should do so if they’re upset with the new voting maps. It’s up to individuals to make their voices heard, he says.
“If we want a different outcome, get involved,” he said. “Talk to your neighbors. Participate in the process.”
Morales LLan, who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, said he never imagined he’d have the chance to sit down for meetings with former Gov. Gary Herbert or have personal numbers for members of Utah’s congressional delegation in his phone.
“I am not a rich person. Really, I am just the average citizen,” he said. “But I do participate.”