Ben McAdams and Natalie Gochnour: New redistricing commissions keeps the trust with Utah voters

(Rick Bowmer | AP photo) Int his Jan. 17, 2020, file photo, the Utah State Capitol stands in Salt Lake City, Jan. 17, 2020.

Utah continues to set an example for the rest of the nation. The appointment of outstanding commissioners to the newly formed Independent Redistricting Commission marks a seminal moment in our shared commitment to a democracy born of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Redistricting is a once-in-a-decade process in which Utah and every other state in the country redraws the voting map for state legislative and U.S. congressional seats. Properly done, it ensures each voter receives equal representation by balancing the population among the various districts, so new districts reflect changes in demographics and growth within our state.

Unfortunately, at times electoral district boundaries are manipulated to benefit a particular political party or interest — a practice unceremoniously known as gerrymandering. The practice cements a foundation of partisanship, confusion and voter apathy. After all, if an individual’s political views never receive a chance of being voiced, why should they even go to the polls?

For a long time, state legislatures across the country, whether Democrat- or Republican-controlled, have asserted sole authority for drawing electoral maps. This practice has led, in select cases, to politicians using this authority for their own benefit. Instead of neutral map-drawing that meets fair standards and keeps communities together wherever possible, they use this power to choose the boundaries (and voters) they believe are most likely to keep themselves, their friends or their political party in control. Using sophisticated computer programs and big data, incumbents maneuver to protect their hold on power and heighten their political party’s success.

In Utah, gerrymandering has led to unfortunate outcomes for communities like Moab, which is divided into two congressional districts along a boundary line that runs down the middle of Main Street, or the city of Holladay, which is split among three different congressional districts.

In 2018, Utah voters passed a citizen-led ballot initiative that balanced the power of the Utah Legislature to draw electoral district boundaries with the added value of an independent redistricting commission. The key word is “independent” — outside the arena of vested political interests. The Legislature maintains its constitutional authority to make the decision, but does so with input from an independent commission. With excellent appointments this month to the independent commission, Utah is on its way to an improved redistricting process and to keeping the trust with Utah voters.

Gov. Spencer Cox appointed Rex Facer to chair the commission. Facer, an associate professor at the Romney Institute for Public Service and Ethics at Brigham Young University, brings a track record of leadership, public policy expertise, and service to the job. By making this excellent appointment, Cox met a high standard of impartiality and fairness.

The other appointments, made by Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, Utah Speaker Brad Wilson, Senate Democratic Leader Karen Mayne and House Democratic Leader Brian King, also hit the mark. They include former Rep. Rob Bishop, former Utah Sen. Lyle Hillyard, former Utah Sen. Patricia Jones, former Utah Supreme Court Justice Christine Durham, former appellate judge Bill Thorne and geographic information systems specialist N. Jeffrey Baker. This looks to be an outstanding commission.

In the coming months, decennial census data will provide the population counts for this new commission to do its work. If done well, the commission will not only meet the standard of one person-one vote, but will strive to keep communities of interest together. Voters don’t expect a representative to reflect their views 100 percent of the time, but neither do they want their voices or their votes marginalized by redistricting tricks. In our republic, voters should pick their political leaders, not the other way around.

We want to thank Cox, Adams, Wilson, Mayne and King for appointing a commission that will keep the trust with Utah voters.

As our governor said in his inaugural address, “We are more divided than at any time in our lifetimes.” Let’s use the Utah Redistricting Commission to bring more unity to a divided world.

(Rick Bowmer | AP photo) Ben McAdams

Ben McAdams is a former member of the Utah Senate, former mayor of Salt Lake County and former member of Congress from Utah’s 4th District. He is now a senior fellow at the Sorenson Impact Center at the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business and founder of the Common Ground Institute.

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune Natalie Gochnour

Natalie Gochnour is an associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business and director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah.