Groups will sue to throw out Utah’s congressional maps

Opponents contend the maps adopted by the Legislature were a gerrymander and disenfranchise a wide swath of Utah voters.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Maps at a news conference held by the Utah’s bipartisan redistricting panel in Taylorsville on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021.

Ultimately, the courts will decide whether or not the congressional boundaries drawn by the Utah Legislature are an illegal gerrymander.

After months of dangling potential litigation challenging the state’s redistricting, the League of Women Voters of Utah, Mormon Women for Ethical Government, and several individual voters said Thursday that they filed a lawsuit alleging that the boundaries adopted by the Legislature disenfranchise Utah voters.

The groups held a news conference Thursday afternoon to formally announce the suit.

“The Utah Constitution guarantees voters of the state a meaningful opportunity to participate in elections,” said David Reymann, one of the local attorneys representing the plaintiffs. “... The congressional map enacted by the Legislature violates those rights, because it creates elections that are neither free nor fair.”

With the group’s legal action, Utah will join 21 other states where either congressional or legislative maps have been challenged, according to the Brennan Center For Justice.

So far, courts in three states — North Carolina, Ohio and Alaska — have struck down the legislatively drawn maps and ordered them to be redrawn. A court in Alabama issued a similar order, but the Supreme Court hit pause while it hears an appeal.

The impending Utah lawsuit comes after a yearslong, voter-backed effort to push the Legislature to create boundaries that reflect the makeup of the state.

For years, legislators rejected proposals to create an independent redistricting commission. In the run-up to the 2018 election, the group Better Boundaries, proponents of the independent commission, gathered enough signatures to put Proposition 4 on the ballot, which created a commission. It passed with a slim 50.3% majority.

But lawmakers contended the voter-backed initiative encroached on the Legislature’s constitutional role to carve up political boundaries. Amid threats to repeal the initiative, legislators watered down the requirements, making the commission purely advisory.

Reymann argued Thursday that all political power in the state is constitutionally derived from its people, and in superseding Proposition 4, elected officials were throwing the power dynamics of Utah “dangerously out of balance.”

“When the Legislature discarded that law [Proposition 4], they … far overstepped their legitimate role in our government,” he said.

In 2021, appointments were made to the commission, and in the ensuing months, the commission held a series of meetings around the state, livestreamed their map-drawing process and recommended a series of maps to the Legislature.

The Legislature rejected them all, opting to follow its own process, releasing drafts of the proposed maps on a Friday, holding a public hearing the following Monday and giving them final passage in a special session that Wednesday.

The lack of transparency in the drawing of the maps and the rest of the hurried process was a major complaint among speakers at Thursday’s presser, who viewed it as another sign their lawmakers weren’t willing to listen to them.

“Despite overwhelming testimony in favor of the commission’s maps at their own hearing, our legislators shut out the very people they represent,” said Catherine Weller, president of the League of Women Voters of Utah, at the news conference. “… When the Legislature did indeed do what they wanted anyway, they confirmed the beliefs of the discouraged, the cynical, all the people who believe their votes and their opinions don’t matter.”

It also helped solidify the Republican dominance in the state’s congressional delegation, they claimed in the suit.

“The Legislature repeatedly used anti-democratic measures — repealing Proposition 4 and then ignoring the Commission’s nonpartisan map recommendations — to perpetuate one-party rule over Utah’s congressional delegation despite the State’s changing demographics,” the lawsuit alleges.

The suit names the Utah Legislature, its redistricting committee, its chairs, House Speaker Brad Wilson, Senate President Stuart Adams and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson as defendants.

Aundrea Peterson, a spokeswoman for the Utah Senate said that they had not seen the lawsuit. “The Legislature completed its constitutional duties to draw district boundaries that represent all areas of Utah while meeting population criteria and followed legal and time-tested redistricting principles,” she said.

On Thursday, Gov. Spencer Cox said during his PBS Utah news conference that he had not seen the lawsuit and doesn’t comment on active litigation. Pressed on whether he still believed the maps were not gerrymanders, he said, “Correct. Let me just add: illegal gerrymandering.”

Malcolm Reid, one of the citizen plaintiffs on the lawsuit, criticized the governor Thursday for not vetoing the gerrymandered maps.

“He placed a higher priority on getting along with the Legislature than respecting the will of the people,” he said.

Several nonpartisan analyses of the Legislature’s maps indicated that the body would have been hard-pressed to give Republicans a greater advantage.

The Princeton Gerrymandering Project said none of the four congressional districts were remotely competitive for Democrats. The political website Fivethirtyeight.com reported that the most competitive of the four new districts would still give Republicans a 23-point advantage — a nearly insurmountable margin.

The Independent Redistricting Commission, by comparison, proposed three congressional maps that had three safe Republican districts and one with a slight Democratic advantage.

Generally speaking, between 25% and 35% of the state votes for Democratic candidates.

The legislative maps also “cracked” Salt Lake County, which is both the state’s Democratic bastion and the most diverse county in the state, into four parts such that one could walk a few miles and set foot in each of the state’s congressional districts.

“I’m a resident of congressional district two, and I am a 45-minute walk from voters in districts one, three and four, but hundreds of miles from citizens in my own congressional district,” said Victoria Reid, a registered Republican and another plaintiff, on Thursday.

“Elections should be determined by voters, not by politicians who draw maps to serve their own political interests,” said Paul Smith, senior vice president at Campaign Legal Center, which is representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, along with two local firms. “Utah’s courts can help make sure every vote counts and every voice is heard by blocking the implementation of the gerrymandered congressional map and reinstating Proposition 4′s critical redistricting reforms.”

In addition to the groups suing the state, there are seven plaintiffs who all live in Salt Lake County. The suit alleges the congressional map split voters with minority viewpoints, diluting their power and depriving them of representation. That, they argue, violates the Free Elections Clause of the Utah Constitution and the Uniform Operations of Laws Clause.

“Unfair maps and gerrymandering dilute the voices of communities and consequently hurt voters of all parties,” Weller said. “We call on the court to block these unfair maps and let the voters of Utah choose who best represents them.”

The suit seeks to have the courts block implementation of the congressional maps for the 2024 election and reinstate the original language of Proposition 4.

“The reason we’ve chosen a deliberative process, rather than trying to get an immediate redrawing of maps, is that we think the evidence in this case will be overwhelming and will vindicate, in the end, the wrongness of what the Legislature’s done,” Reymann said.

Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, introduced legislation late in the session that would have restored Proposition 4, but the bill did not get a hearing.

The suit only contests the congressional boundaries, not maps lawmakers drew for the House, Senate or the State School Board.