Doris Schmidt: Political power belongs to the people

Utah Legislature should listen to the people when drawing political district boundaries.

The people have spoken. But do their elected leaders have to listen? That’s the obvious question as two separate — and not equal — groups work to redraw Utah’s voting districts. And there’s an obvious answer, according to the Utah Constitution: “All political power is inherent in the people.”

It was the people — going against the will of the politicians — who created the Independent Redistricting Commission. This commission now serves as counterpart to the Legislative Redistricting Committee, with each group drawing its own set of maps. They are truly working a parallel process; in terms of philosophy, principles and intended outcomes, their paths do not cross.

The Independent Redistricting Commission, also known as “the people’s commission,” was created by voter initiative as a way to fight gerrymandering. True to its roots, the commission’s focus is on drawing districts that keep communities with shared policy interests together. And to avoid the potential for gerrymandering that can come with favoring incumbents, this group has kept incumbent addresses out of its redistricting data.

By keeping communities at the center and political considerations outside of the process, the Independent Commission is striving to ensure that the people will be picking their politicians, and not the other way around.

The 20 members of the Legislative Redistricting Committee — 15 of them Republicans — are taking the opposite approach. These state legislators have decided that keeping communities with shared interests together will not be a criterion for drawing their maps. They have decided that instead of every voice being heard, some will be amplified. “When we do redistricting, we’re going to … adamantly try to help out rural Utah, to give them a stronger voice,” Legislative Committee Co-Chair Rep. Paul Ray told the House Political Divisions Subcommittee.

Partisan advantages? They’re baked into the process, according to Legislative Committee Co-Chair Sen. Scott Sandall. “There’s always a process of personal preference or political pull … that has to go into drawing these boundaries,” he told Utah Political Underground.

As for drawing the lines to protect incumbents … well, the incumbents are drawing the lines. Why would they work against their own interests?

The even-handed approach of the Independent Commission may not even matter, since Utah’s Constitution gives sole redistricting power to the Legislature. At least that’s how Legislative Committee members are spinning it. Yet the U.S. Supreme Court has already reviewed this argument and found it lacking. When the Arizona State Legislature tried to delegitimize the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, the Supreme Court ruled that the word “legislature” refers to all the people — not just to the state’s lawmaking body.

The people of Utah have been encouraged to draw their own redistricting maps — and given the software tools to do so — by both redistricting groups. It’s a good way to get citizens involved in the process, and to allow them to share insights and concerns. The Independent Commission even let members of the public map their own communities of interest, providing details that can inform the larger effort. The Legislative Committee will only accept complete maps that include all districts, however. This squanders the local expertise that citizens can provide and ignores the fact that no citizen can be an expert on every neighborhood in the state.

With different procedures, principles and priorities, Utah’s dueling redistricting committees have embarked on separate efforts that are likely to yield very different results. The Independent Commission will deliver their maps to the Legislature on Nov. 1, and the public will be able to compare them with the maps that are finally adopted — maps that must, above all, ensure that political power remains inherent in the people.

Doris Schmidt

After a long career as a journalism professor at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts, Doris Schmidt retired and moved to Utah. She now serves as a volunteer with Alliance for a Better Utah.