“Who are to be the electors of the federal representatives? Not the rich, more than the poor; not the learned, more than the ignorant; not the haughty heirs of distinguished names, more than the humble sons of obscurity and unpropitious fortune. The electors are to be the great body of the people of the United States.”
And where is the great body of the people of the United States to be found? Well, in Utah, it is overwhelmingly along the Wasatch Front. The urban counties of Salt Lake, Utah, Davis and Weber make up 76% of the state’s 3.2 million people.
So when former Rep. Rob Bishop argues, as he did Monday when huffily resigning from the Utah Independent Redistricting Commission, that a set of proposed maps for new congressional districts should deliberately drain some of the influence away from the populated areas of the state in favor of more rural communities, he was about as wrong as a person can be.
That anyone who served in the House of Representatives for 18 years could be so utterly oblivious to the constitutional nature of that body is troubling, to say the least. House members represent people. Not land and trees and cows and rocks. We have the U.S. Senate for that.
Bishop’s temper tantrum could be safely ignored — the proposed maps that so upset him were unanimously approved by the commission’s remaining members — but for the fact that it will provide cover for members of the Utah Legislature.
The Legislature has the final say in how congressional, legislative and state school board districts will be drawn, and they can ignore the commission’s considered recommendations and substitute a lawmaker’s own designs. Designs that are almost certain to be gerrymandered to deliberately sap the deserved influence of the state’s urban areas.
The most obvious target for gerrymandering, as demonstrated in the design of the state’s current congressional districts, would be to split Salt Lake City up among three districts, scattering it among constituencies that reach to the Colorado, Arizona and Nevada borders, all but guaranteeing that the candidates who carry Salt Lake County have no chance of being elected to Congress.
The maps forwarded to the Legislature Monday by the independent commission avoid that by providing options that keep the state’s largest city intact and joined with nearby suburbs to maintain what constitutional scholars call a “community of interest.” The proposals also meet the legal and ethical standards for keeping each district virtually equivalent in population and within recognizable political and natural boundaries.
When Bishop and Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson complain that the commission’s districts are “metro-centric,” what they are really objecting to is the fact that the proposed districts would respect the power of the people to choose their own representatives, instead of having representatives chosen for them by way of unfairly drawn districts.
It is clear that what Bishop and Wilson fear is more political power in the hands of Utah citizens who, by their place of residence, are more likely to be liberal, to vote Democratic and to be people of color. To deliberately dilute the influence of such communities by drowning them in vast rural areas is to argue that urban dwellers are not fit to rule themselves and should be made subservient to their more conservative, small town and, yes, white betters.
Bishop complains the commission’s recommended districts basically lock in three Republican districts and one Democratic one. But that is about right given the proportion of votes that Republican and Democratic candidates for Congress have received in recent elections.
The districts that now exist, and the districts that Bishop would have preferred, all but guarantee that the people of Salt Lake City and nearby suburbs have no voice in Congress. Which is exactly what our political leaders wanted when they gutted Proposition 4, the successful 2018 ballot question that not only created the independent commission but would have made its recommendations binding rather than just advisory, as they are today.
The redistricting commission is to formally present its recommendations to the Legislature on Nov. 1. Then it will be up to that body to compare the independently drawn boundaries to those soon to be proposed by the Legislature’s own redistricting committee and make the final decision, perhaps at a special session in mid-November.
Utah residents who favor the independent commission’s proposals should make that clear to their lawmakers. It may be the only time their voices are heard.