Andy Larsen: Utah’s gerrymandered maps aren’t just politics as usual — they’re worse than that

“It’s not that the game is being won or lost; it’s that it’s being rigged.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Over 100 people spoke in opposition to the Utah Legislature's Redistricting Committee's only public hearing for the map proposals.

Utah’s gerrymandered maps make me angry.

When I first saw the Legislature’s proposed maps, I sent friends curse-laden texts in frustration. When I saw the transparent lies used to justify it from Utah legislators, I punched a nearby pillow. And, while at a Jazz game, when I saw that Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said that he wouldn’t veto the maps, I slammed my laptop shut and had to take a lap around the arena, missing a couple of minutes of game time as a result as I muttered to myself — an abdication of duty from my Jazz beat-writing job, to be sure.

The above isn’t how I usually react to political things. In general, I react to political malfeasance with a well-worn jadedness, earned through the years of stories I’ve read from this paper and others that can be put in the Politicians Doing Bad Things column.

Nor has the outcome of any election ever made me so furious as the events of the past week. I’m a registered independent and have voted for both D and R candidates. But the whole two-party hullabaloo is annoying and exhausting, and everyone involved just seems so divorced from the reality of American lives — so eager to win a culture war on either side that people are suffering as a result. In many ways, ignoring this battle to some extent has allowed me to dig into issues from a more data-driven point of view; if you’re not really listening to what the politicians are saying about COVID-19, for example, it’s easier to just report the facts without knowing which side you’re going to upset.

So I’ve been trying to figure out why this — Utah’s political maps, a seemingly mundane topic — made me react the way I did. And upon reflection, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a perfect storm of factors. On the list:

1. There’s an objectively good way to do this that has been ignored.

I’m a math major, but I’m also a realist: unlike in mathematics, there frequently aren’t right answers in life.

But redistricting is one of the political problems that most approximates math. In short, the courts, when commenting on redistricting issues, have found these six criteria to be most helpful in maximizing voter representation (This list is quoted from the National Conference of State Legislatures):

• Compactness (a measure of a district’s geometric shape).

• Contiguity (all parts of the district must be connected).

• Adhering to preexisting political subdivisions (such as city and county lines).

• Preserving communities of interest (such as neighborhoods or regions where the residents have common political interests).

• Preserving the cores of prior districts (to provide continuity of representation).

• Protecting incumbents (by avoiding contests between incumbents that could result if a new district included residences of two or more sitting representatives).

What’s cool is that all of these are quite objective measures. It is easy to examine a proposed map and measure its compactness, or how well it preserves communities of interest, or how many incumbent wars it starts. In fact, you can write a computer program to do it for you, and it will spit out good maps.

Now, obviously, figuring out how the program should prioritize these six components is nontrivial. You might have it produce several maps, and vote on them. But an optimization program wouldn’t ever be able to create a map that, say, split all of Utah’s population centers, from Salt Lake City to St. George to Ogden to Provo. Such a map would fail multiple aspects of the criteria — and so would be rejected.

We’ve asked the Legislature to solve 2 plus 2 for us, given lawmakers the calculator — and they’ve threw it back in our faces and insisted the answer was 3. It’s just … jarring. Worse, it’s objectively incorrect.

2. It’s not that the game is being won or lost; it’s that it’s being rigged.

I know sports pretty well. It’s been the major passion of my life.

The magic of sports is that they are a microcosm of the human experience. You can be happy, sad, frustrated, excited, prideful, mournful, ecstatic, wistful and just plain enthralled over the course of an evening in basketball, football, whatever. It’s glorious, honestly.

The reason this works is that sports occur on a mostly even playing field. If the NBA made it so that the Lakers had a Hula-Hoop to shoot at all season, it would remove all of the fun of the above. Success and failure wouldn’t be determined by ability but by the arbitrary setup of the game. The Lakers could field a lesser team, screw around for most of their games, and still pull away in the fourth quarter. Sure, sometimes a David can beat a Goliath, but I prefer to live in a more equitable world without giants.

You can debate if politics more closely emulating a game between two teams is a good thing. I’d probably argue that it is not. And yet, beginning the ground on literally uneven territory removes significant incentives for the parties involved to do the right thing. The favored side, unconcerned about a potential loss, doesn’t have to worry about acting with integrity or in the interests of its citizens. The unfavored side, knowing it’s doomed to defeat, isn’t going to bring its “A” game either — why bother?

The result is a political system that becomes even more distant from the needs of the people, a system that doesn’t represent the totality of the human condition but instead the narrow desire of the winner for more winning.

3. It outright ignores the will of the people.

Remember Proposition 4? It was relatively straightforward. In the end, a majority of Utahns anticipated this gerrymandering problem and voted to prevent it from happening again. In doing so, they formed an independent commission that would create the maps in the future, maps that the Legislature could vote between, maps that fit the objectively good criteria. State lawmakers found that their power had been limited and overrode the will of the people.

When we grow up, we’re taught about the virtues of democracy. We’re taught about how successful governments operate in protecting the will of the people. We’re taught that governments that don’t do this are ... evil.

There’s a Thomas Jefferson quote that applies:

“I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.”

If the Legislature wanted to keep power, the correct approach would have been to convince the people that it deserved to keep that power, not by overriding the will of the people through revengeful lawmaking.

4. I feel small. I feel unheard.

Upon reflection, even the above three logical reasons to hate the maps aren’t what fire me up most. I punched a pillow, after all — that’s not a rational reaction; it’s an emotional one.

By ensuring that Utah’s districts aren’t competitive for the next 10 years, the Legislature seeks to ensure that my vote won’t make an impact. Neither will yours, no matter what side you’re on. The winners and losers have already been cast. Instead, the status quo will remain forever under an illogical, rigged system in which one side essentially always wins by accumulating votes in every district in a safe 65-35 ratio.

I feel voiceless. Powerless. Heck, I feel straight-up meek.

But that’s exactly what the goal of these maps was, right? To prevent the voice of any individual from making an impact in how the state is run, or how the federal government responds to Utah?

I don’t like being put in that box — so easily ignored. I don’t like being cast aside, in deference to the powers that be. I don’t like being told that I don’t matter.

So, yeah, I’m angry. Not just angry — justifiably furious.

Andy Larsen is a data columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune. You can reach him at alarsen@sltrib.com.