Tim Chambless: Utah’s Independent Redistricting Commission out to limit partisan gerrymandering

State should avoid gerrymandering to provide its voters with real representation.

Governing is not easy – it is hard. James Madison, the “father” of the U.S. Constitution, saw the problem. He observed “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Men (and women) are not angels. Human beings are imperfect. Think problem-solution.

A partial solution specified in the Constitution required our nation’s population be counted accurately each 10 years. Why? To govern with changing conditions and to plan. And they authorized “federalism” — an unprecedented sharing of power between existing states and the new federal government.

Quick history. In 1787 the Founding Fathers approved the Constitution by a vote of 38-3. Elbridge Gerry was one of three delegates who voted no. He opposed a sharing of a state’s power with a new central government. And he was suspicious of representative democracy.

In 1812, 25 years later, Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry approved an election map that would benefit the privileged few over the struggling many. One drawn district included 12 counties and looked like a monstrous creation. Critics called it a “gerrymander.” The name has haunted American government for over two centuries.

Partisan gerrymandering was evident with President George Washington’s first veto. He vetoed a bill passed by Congress that would have allowed drawn districts favoring incumbent members’ re-elections.

In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan called for “an end to the anti-democratic and un-American practice of gerrymandering congressional districts.” He declared: “The fact is gerrymandering has become a national scandal and a conflict of interest.”

Every 10 years, many incumbent legislators praise competition in public, but act in private to draw districts that limit competition. Supporters of partisan gerrymandering use the tactic of divide and conquer.

That is, divide “communities of interest” by choosing their voters — rather than allowing voters to elect a candidate more representative of their community.

Utahns believe that competition is good. True in the marketplace, in the classroom, in athletic contests, in political campaigns. Competition is important when our political leaders are exchanging contrasting interpretations of problems — and the best solutions.

In 2017, I signed the “Better Boundaries” initiative approved by the lieutenant governor – Utah’s state elections officer. Nearly 200,000 Utah voters signed this initiative – far more than the 113,143 signatures required. Utah voters approved Prop. 4 in 2018.

Utahns believe voters should choose their elected officials — that those holding public office, at the taxpayers’ expense, should not be allowed to choose their own voters.

Today, the seven-person Independent Redistricting Commission is conducting public meetings and encouraging Utah citizens to submit their own maps which – if accepted by the commission, and in turn, the Utah State Legislature – will decide districts for Utah’s four Congressional Districts as well as seats in the Utah state Senate, state House and state School Board.

Utah communities such as Holladay, Murray, Millcreek, as well as South Jordan, West Jordan, St. George, and Bountiful, deserve to be represented in the Legislature by one lawmaker focused on a citizen’s concerns — rather than have those communities divided, and weakened.

I encourage all Utahns to participate in our ongoing experiment in democracy by giving the Independent Redistricting Commission feedback on their draft maps. Hopefully, Utah voters who created the Independent Redistricting Commission will be rewarded with legislative districts that are fair and reasonable, competitive and in the spirit of American democracy.

Tim Chambless

Tim Chambless, Ph.D., is board president of Better Boundaries. He taught courses for decades in the University of Utah’s Department of Political Science and Hinckley Institute of Politics. He has taught American public affairs and politics for the U.’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute since 2007.