Every decade every state in the U.S. has an opportunity through redistricting to help bring our elected government, at all levels, closer to the people.
In an incredibly compressed time frame, members of the Utah Independent Redistricting Commission (UIRC) have devoted time and dedicated themselves to map discussions with citizens from San Juan County to Logan. Citizens have taken time out of their busy lives to participate in these meetings in person and virtually. Some spent many hours creating, explaining and submitting proposed maps.
Oct. 25 was a benchmark day. Six members of the UIRC voted unanimously to submit 12 maps – three different versions for each of the four different election groups: the Utah congressional seats, the Utah Senate, the Utah House of Representatives and the Utah State Board of Education. Unfortunately, and in dramatic fashion, the other member of the commission — former Republican Congressman Rob Bishop — suddenly left his seat, abandoning the process and his sworn duties, with a proclamation of disbelief in the commission.
Now is a natural time to reflect on why 512,218 Utahns – a majority of our fellow Beehive State neighbors – enthusiastically voted for an independent redistricting commission.
In 2017, the Utah Foundation released a report on politics entitled “Checking the Box: The Latest on How Utahns Vote,” analyzing the state’s voting processes with quite concerning findings:
• Utah’s 2016 voter participation was 39th lowest in the nation, showing a substantial decline over the past 40 years.
• A norm of uncompetitive races, illustrated in 2016, when 71% of Utah’s state general election races were won by a margin of greater than 30%.
• A highly polarized Utah electorate, and party delegates even more so.
The 2019 tax reform effort, with its infamous attempt to increase the state’s food tax, was another demonstration to Utah voters that elected officials were not reflecting their values or understanding their pocketbooks. A clear majority of Utah voters of both parties pushed back on that burdensome tax – and the supermajority Republican Legislature was forced to concede.
As legislators involved with redistricting, we recognize the map drawing process takes an enormous amount of time and pulls at our emotions. Those of us who have walked the streets of our districts and become connected with constituents find it is difficult to imagine losing neighborhoods among those we feel we represent.
Rob Bishop’s departing statement, which pits rural Utahns against urban residents, is a complete distraction from our views about redistricting. The pandemic has sent all of us into our communal rural areas for peace and rejuvenation. Our rural legislators are respected members in our Legislature, whose voices we value. All members of our congressional delegation have worked for rural Utah, regardless of where they live.
One of Bishop’s greatest recent accomplishments during his time in Congress was passage of America’s Conservation Enhancement (ACE), reauthorizing $90 million in appropriations for the Chesapeake Bay Program. His values regarding wildlife and his ability to work with others, not the location of his residence, led to his leadership on that bill.
Utah state legislators who live in urban areas have taken leading roles to create state parks in rural areas, find ways to preserve family farms, and our governor and Legislature are focused on moving state jobs to rural areas because as a state we value our iconic rural areas and our farmers and we recognize the need to expand broadband and other services.
These shared urban-rural policy priority areas are even more urgent given the status of Utah as the fastest-growing state in the country over the last decade. Utah voters want to feel their vote makes a difference. Silicon Slopes’ informal survey of their own lifelong Utahns found 51% still do not feel empowered to make change within the Utah political landscape.
Utahns want these new maps to give voice to all Utahns, and they value the integrity of the commissioners to honor the inclusive process in creating them. The state Legislature will have the final vote on maps that will define our districts for the next 10 years. Utahns across the state are hopeful that the Legislative Redistricting Committee will carefully consider the maps submitted by the UIRC, as a reflection of respect for the dedication of these committed members, respect for the wishes of Utah voters, and a genuine view from outside the legislative body on what the future of Utah could look like – a more inclusive and less divisive future reflecting our state’s growing diversity and dynamism.
Rep. Gay Lynn Bennion is a Democrat representing the Cottonwood Heights area for House District 46.
Rep. Elizabeth Weight is a Democrat representing West Valley City from House District 31.