Utah’s redistricting lawsuit is fighting back against anti-democratic bullying, Robert Gehrke writes

The Legislature’s cynical move to silence hundreds of thousands of Utahns was wrong and only the courts can stop it.

Victoria Reid likes to walk.

So about a month ago she left her home in Millcreek and walked about two blocks east, came across a ditch, turned south and went another half mile. Then she headed west and within 45 minutes was back home.

In that short span, she’d set foot in each of the four congressional districts established in November by the Utah Legislature.

“One of the boundaries is a ditch. They call it a canal but its a ditch,” Reid told me recently. “Those are our nice boundaries that are community-based.”

A self-described moderate Republican, Reid and her husband, Malcolm, are among seven Utahns who — along with the League of Women Voters of Utah and Mormon Women for Ethical Government — are plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed last week asking the court to strike down the congressional districts and protect their voice in government.

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) Plaintiffs Malcom and Victoria Reid speak about participating in a lawsuit alleging that new congressional boundaries adopted by the Legislature disenfranchise Utah voters, on Thursday, March 17, 2022, at the Capitol.

“You get extreme candidates when you have extreme districts,” Reid said. “None of them are competitive anymore. Not one.”

All these plaintiffs are asking is for the court to ensure one of the most fundamental rights of every American: They want to be able to cast a vote that matters and have meaningful representation in Congress.

It seems simple but it’s something Utah’s Republican-led Legislature has conspired to deny hundreds of thousands of Salt Lake County residents. Through a cynical power grab, GOP lawmakers have split neighbors and diluted the votes of neighbors by lumping them in with residents who live hundreds of miles away and share little, if any, common interests.

Take Stefanie Condie and Wendy Martin, for example. Both live in downtown Salt Lake City, close enough that a decent golfer (not me) could hit a driver and a short pitching wedge from one front door to the other, yet they’re in different congressional districts.

It would take a much longer drive — more than 5 1/2 hours in a car, assuming traffic cooperates — if Condie wanted to visit fellow Second District constituents in the more remote parts of the state.

And it was never supposed to be this way.

In 2018, Utahns of all political persuasions voted for the creation of an independent redistricting commission, providing some optimism that redistricting might be handled with an aim of fairness and not a purely partisan power grab.

Even after the Legislature gutted the initiative, there was at least a glimmer of hope lawmakers might see their way to do the right thing when presented with the non-partisan commission’s maps and the data proving they could provide equitable representation for everyone in Utah.

But that would give them too much credit. These Republican legislators don’t care about equity. They don’t care about fairness. And they’ve acted with a complete disdain for the notion of representative democracy — and have done so with what really is nothing short of ruthless efficiency.

Here’s the evidence: The Utah Independent Redistricting Commission used computer programs to draw a suite of 100,000 maps that met normally accepted redistricting criteria and compared them to partisan voting patterns in the last 10 elections. In 99.5% of the cases, at least one congressional seat would be competitive, or less than a six-point advantage for one party.

The most competitive seat in Utah’s Republican gerrymander is the 2nd Congressional District, which, according to an analysis by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, yields a 24-point GOP advantage. The 4th District, which had been the most competitive seat in the state and changed hands three times in the last decade, now gives Rep. Burgess Owens a 37-point cushion.

Did the Republican Legislature just stumble across a unicorn map that happened to effectively disenfranchise a large portion of the state? Or was this intentionally and meticulously crafted by national Republicans with that goal in mind?

The latter seems like the obvious answer, but the lawsuit may pull back the curtain — through document discovery and depositions — and give us a better picture of how this awful map came to be.

Utah isn’t unique. Nationwide, maps that were drawn by both Republican and Democratic legislatures in 22 states are being challenged as unconstitutional gerrymanders. And they should be, because disenfranchisement is wrong, no matter what party is perpetrating it.

And in a super-majority state like Utah, there really is no other institution that can or will step in to protect this fundamental right.

Minority Democrats can’t do it. Gov. Spencer Cox wouldn’t do it. Voters from both parties tried through Proposition 4 to fight back and we saw how that ended. And because the Legislature draws their own boundaries and picks their own voters there’s no meaningful accountability at the ballot box.

Taking something that belongs to someone else just because nobody can stop you is bullying, pure and simple.

Now, thanks to the League of Women Voters, Mormon Women for Ethical Government, Victoria Reid, Stefanie Condie, Wendy Martin and others, we finally have someone willing to fight back. We finally have someone willing to stand up to the bully.

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