Scott Howell: I know a thing or two about gerrymandering

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Scott Howell argues that voters should pass Proposition 4 to create an independent redistricting commission.

I know a thing or two about gerrymandering.

The first time I heard that funny word stands out in my mind so vividly that it seems like it was yesterday. But the year was 1972. I was sitting in Mr. Patten’s English class at Skyline High School. Mr. Patten gave a weekly vocabulary and spelling test. One of the words that day was “gerrymander.” I spelled it correctly and gave its meaning: To manipulate the boundaries of (an electoral constituency) so as to favor one party or class.

On that day in school I had no clue that the word would have such an impact in my life 20 years later.

In 1990, the voters of District 4 elected me to the Utah Senate. It was supposed to be a four-year term. However, as the Republican-dominated Legislature undertook to redraw districts following the census of that year, my colleagues across the aisle gerrymandered me out of my seat! I wound up in the same district as longtime Republican Sen. Fred Finlinson and had to run against him in an early election in 1992.

I was the long-shot underdog. Our shared, newly-drawn District 8 was made up mostly of Finlinson’s old constituents. That same redistricting plan drew two other incumbent Democratic senators, Karen Shepherd and Bob Steiner, into a single district in a further attempt to dilute the influence of the minority party.

By some miracle I won that forced race in 1992. I must attribute the win to the sympathy vote of so many of my opponent’s former supporters who told me they knew what the Legislature had done was blatantly unfair.

But I can’t blame Republicans for the shenanigans. In states where Democrats hold a commanding majority, they do the same partisan thing. Both parties use the trick to enforce their dominance when they can, and what is or isn’t fair may forever be in the eyes of the beholder. But this much I know: The opportunity to play with an electoral map does not summon forth politicians' better angels.

With decades of practice, Utah’s Legislature has raised gerrymandering to an art. Following its redistricting of congressional seats in 2001, the late Sen. Bob Bennett broke with his party and called it one of the worst examples of gerrymandering he’d ever seen.

However, the real victims of gerrymandering are not the candidates who run for office. Nobody suggests that all candidates should have an equal chance of winning. However, our founding principles insist that all citizens have a vote that carries equal weight.

The Constitution mandates a census every 10 years to ensure equal representation for voters at both the federal and state levels. We should have the expectation that each Utahn’s voice and views are reflected in the equal power of their votes. That means their votes won’t be sliced or diced or bundled in a way to dilute their influence in the outcome of an election.

Happily, we can now ensure that expectation which the state Legislature has failed to meet. Proposition 4 on next month’s ballot lets Utah follow a path blazed by 18 other states that already have implemented redistricting reform.

Proposition 4 will spare state legislators from the temptation to tinker with voter district boundaries in ways that would serve their own self-interest. By putting the map-drawing role into the hands of an independent, bi-partisan commission bound by standards and priorities we can take the shenanigans out of reapportionment and give voters as well as candidates a more level playing field.

Proposition 4 is an idea whose time is now. It has made it to the ballot through the work of civic leaders representing Republicans and Democrats alike. The measure will be an important step toward revitalizing Utah's dismal voter turnout and reducing the high number of uncontested races.

Truly, "Voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around." That's how Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said it as she wrote for the majority in a 2015 Supreme Court decision.

We have the opportunity to reclaim our sovereign power of choice by voting for Proposition 4.

Scott N. Howell, Salt Lake City, is a former Utah Senate minority leader.

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