A huge opportunity awaits Utah on Nov. 6 -- an opportunity to vote yes on Proposition 4 and slay one of the great plagues of American democracy, gerrymandering.
Every 10 years gerrymandering raises its ugly head and blights the fairness upon which our democracy is predicated. At that time, the state’s ruling political party, using United States Census data, redraws the state legislative and federal congressional districts to secure their political advantage.
In 2010, the pernicious effects of gerrymandering accelerated as big data and powerful mapping software allowed the ruling political party to draw district lines ever more precisely, thereby more fully entrenching their political advantage, and, in the words of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, “insulating officeholders against all but the most titanic shifts in the political tides."
In effect, gerrymandering allows politicians to pick their voters, rather than voters picking their politicians. It’s un-American. And it exists in every state with multiple congressional districts, including our own.
There are certain federal standards that those drawing redistricting maps must follow. Each district must contain the same population and not discriminate on the basis of race. Other traditional redistricting principles include limiting splits among cities and counties, preserving communities of interest, making districts compact and contiguous and not favoring or disfavoring incumbents.
With 2010 Census data in hand, Utah lawmakers appear to have willfully ignored traditional redistricting principles and proceeded to gerrymander both state legislative and federal congressional districts. One goal was to defeat 4th District Rep. Jim Matheson, Utah’s lone congressional Democrat. Using the classic gerrymandering technique, cracking, they divided Salt Lake City (a Democrat stronghold) among three districts to drown out its Democratic voters with neighboring heavily Republican turf. While Matheson won that year by less than 1 percent, Republicans finally captured his seat when he retired in 2014.
At the state level, the Associated Press found that Republicans, by creatively drawing districts, won an average of 64 percent of the votes in each district, while GOP candidates won 83 percent of all the legislative seats. The AP analysis concluded that redistricting helped Utah Republicans win three more seats than they likely would have if districts had been drawn more objectively.
Stories similar to Utah’s are playing out in states throughout the country. Unfortunately, gerrymandering’s pernicious effect runs deeper. It is a principle cause underlying the hyper-partisan politics in Washington. Why? Because gerrymandering frequently makes the primary election of the ruling party more important than the general election.
Politicians of the ruling party know that their party has drawn their districts to give them a huge advantage in the general election against any opposing party politician. So all that a ruling party politician has to do is win his primary’s election. Because citizens who vote in primary elections have more extreme views than the average voter, they choose politicians with more extreme views. As a result, in Republican states like Utah we tend to elect very conservative politicians, and in Democratic states such as Massachusetts, they elect very liberal ones.
Gerrymandering makes moderate politicians on both sides of the aisle uncommon. Accordingly, durable bipartisan legislation, the type requiring compromise, is now increasingly rare.
While the United States Supreme Court has dithered (2004, 2017), other states have taken up the challenge. In 2010, Californian voters decisively supported Proposition 20, mandating that California’s congressional districts be drawn by the California Citizens Redistricting Commission in a non-partisan, open, and transparent process.
Currently, independent redistricting commissions exist in five additional states — Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Montana and Washington. In this election, Missouri, Michigan and Colorado will join Utah in having ballot initiatives proposing independent redistricting commissions.
It is very hard to make a difference as an adult in a nation of 326 million. But, by voting yes on Proposition 4, you are saying to politicians in Utah and throughout the United States that you will not be denied by politicians who strive to drown your voice, and that you will contribute in a meaningful way to a better functioning democracy.
As a physician, I have spent my whole adult life in the service of my patients’ health. The health of our democracy is failing, and requires immediate treatment. Utah, let’s show America we know that to help heal our democracy we must eliminate gerrymandering. Vote yes on Proposition 4.
Justin F. Thulin, M.D., is a dermatologist practicing in Salt Lake City,