Commentary: Utah is a textbook example of gerrymandering

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) Rob Miller speaks during a rally at the Utah Capitol Saturday, April 9, 2011. The rally was organized to press state leaders for an independent, nonpartisan commission to create new districts, federally and locally.

The definition of gerrymandering is when one political party creates voting districts in a way that hinders democracy. Utah is a textbook example of gerrymandering.

At the federal level, Salt Lake City is split up among three of the state’s four U.S. congressional districts. At the state level, many municipalities are split up among multiple (sometimes up to four) state legislative districts. This splitting up of neighborhoods, cities and counties is to maintain political control. An elected representative should represent his or her constituents; any effort to diminish this representation is an affront to democracy.

Every 10 years, after the census, the legislators draw new districts. Historically they have been drawn using physical boundaries, township and other inclusive boundaries. Unfortunately, lawmakers often abuse this power and try to manipulate elections by carving up communities and packing voters into gerrymandered districts in hopes of helping — or hurting — specific politicians or political parties.

With the advent of computers and data analysis, the method of drawing the boundaries has been designed to create the boundaries in a manner that favors one political party. This is not how democracy is intended to function. The Utah Legislature, which is controlled by Republicans, created a congressional map of twisted modified districts that favor the Republican Party, instead of doing what’s best for Utah’s communities.

This doesn’t just hurt voters in Salt Lake County, who have effectively lost their voice in elections. It also harms voters who are parts of different communities of interest. It insults democracy, whose very core principle is one person/one vote, that the vote should matter and that the vote should count.

This November, voters in Utah will have the chance to limit partisan gerrymandering and safeguard our democracy by voting for Proposition 4, put on the ballot by the Better Boundaries initiative. Proposition 4 is designed to combat this illegal practice and bring back the idea that voters choose their representatives, rather than the representatives choosing their voters.

This ballot initiative proposes taking away the redistricting power from state lawmakers, who have already shown that they will use it to disempower voters, and instead create an independent redistricting commission to compose the district maps.

The commission would have an even number of Democrats and Republicans plus one independent member. Members of the commission—none of whom may be lobbyists or political candidates (among other restrictions)—would be appointed by the governor along with the majority and minority leaders in the Legislature. To ensure that no single political party controls the process, a final map could only be passed by a super-majority vote.

Additionally, the commission would be required to adhere to two “rules” as closely as possible: First, that city and county boundaries are to remain intact, and communities of interest are to be bundled together wherever possible. And second, that partisan political data or incumbent addresses may not be used in the process of creating a map.

If the Legislature rejects, by majority vote, a map composed by the commission, it would be able to draw its own map. But lawmakers would also be required by law to hold a public hearing in which they must collect public comment and defend their new map in terms of its adherence to the two rules outlined above. If the new map does not comply with these rules — meaning it’s gerrymandered — the Legislature would be in violation of the law and could then be sued.

Iris Nielsen, North Logan, is a retired buyer after 30 years with companies including MKS, ATK, TFS and ISA, and a lifelong student of politics, laws and government with a degree from Utah State University.