Salt Lake City ( Associated Press) – “It provides accountability for the redistribution process.”
“We need representation that understands the diversity of the region.”
“As a voter in a rural area, I am completely uncomfortable with my vote being used to dilute the power of another.”
These are just a few of hundreds of emails received by Deseret News and the KSL Investigates team Which shows the recent disapproval from lawmakers to lawmakers regarding the highly controversial redistribution process.
The Utah Legislature and Gov. Spencer Cox recently approved the state’s new political boundaries, consolidating voting districts for the next 10 years.
The districts were determined by lawmakers, not the independent commission that was established after the 2018 voter-approved ballot measure.
It was a controversial process that attracted hundreds of Utons to the Capitol to criticize the Legislative Redistribution Committee’s proposed maps, urging them to adopt the maps proposed by the Independent Commission.
Despite the uproar, the Republican-controlled panel approved its own maps, and about 24 hours later the Legislature accepted them during a special session.
Lawmakers received thousands of emails asking for the committee’s recommendation – Deseret News and KSL-TV received 2,100 emails sent to members of the House, and 1,679 to members of the Senate from October 25 to November 8, the day lawmakers gave their votes. Own map seal of approval.
An analysis of the emails shows that 930 people reached out to lawmakers during this time frame asking that the independent commission’s maps be selected, or that they did not approve the parliamentarians’ maps.
Meanwhile, 11 people sent emails approving the map made by the MPs.
A common refrain of political activists is to “write your representative.” Many Utons did what they thought was gerrymandering. Given the civic engagement, why haven’t MPs listened to their constituents?
Lawmakers had been working on the redistribution process for several years, until more than 100 Utans came to the state capitol to decrypt their maps. Some sat on the legislative committee in 2011, the last time the state drew new boundaries.
Could it be that lawmakers didn’t listen to the crowd at the Capitol – and the more than 900 Utans who wrote an email – because they simply know better than their constituents?
“I don’t think I can say we know better. But I can say that for the sake of the majority, we had to look holistically,” said Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, co-chair of the Legislative Redistribution Committee .
Sandals says most of the comments he received were about the Congressional map, which divides Salt Lake County into four districts. Some of the comments he received were from Democrat voters advocating essentially gerrymandering.
“Honestly, they would say things like, we want a district that is only in Salt Lake County, so that we Democrats can win,” Sandall explained. “My comment to him was that the definition of gerrymandering is too much.”
Ask a member of Utah’s Democratic minority, however, and you’ll get a very different story. In the days after the maps were approved, House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, Congress called the map “severely gerrymandered.”
King told Deseret News and KSL-TV that the boundaries for the other three maps – the State House, the Senate and the school board – had “a great level of bilateral input”.
But the Congress map?
“It was not a hard vote,” said King, who, along with all his Democratic allies, voted against the new limits. “I thought there was very little discussion with the public or Democrats about the Congressional maps on which we were asked to vote. They came out relatively late in the process, so we didn’t have to look at them and consider them.” Didn’t have more than a few days to do.”
Sandals says the Congressional map that would eventually recommend lawmakers actually originated from an independent commission. Dubbed the “Green Map”, it was originally submitted by a student at Utah State University, then workshopped by an independent commission.
But this was eventually removed by the commission, which recommended a separate map submitted by a member of the public – Sandal says the map was produced using political data, intended to be devoid of the redistribution process.
“That green map was basically the origin of the place we went with the Congress map that the legislature had adopted,” he said.
Sandal states that a major criterion for political boundary was a “mixture of rural and urban”.
Much of the urban Wasatch Front relies on rural Utah — whether it is for water, mineral extraction, oil and gas production or electricity — Sandals says.
“Plus, urban Utah builds up again in rural Utah,” he told Deseret News and KSL-TV. “That’s why we felt it was important that each of our congressmen has a footprint in both urban and rural areas.”
But according to emails sent to lawmakers, several political experts who spoke to Deseret News and KSL-TV, and even a few politicians in rural Utah, revisited voters in remote corners of the state from the point of view of redistribution. drowned.
“I think the legislature undermined our voices as a rural community,” says Sean Dustin, the former mayor of Nibli in northern Utah’s Cache Valley.
Dustin was one of more than 50 Utah mayors who participated in a New York University professor’s study and asked what they wanted to see in their district. Most of them said exactly what Dustin said – rural Utah has a completely different list of issues, and should have an entirely different representation.
“I have a problem with the Wasatch Front people trying to represent the interests of areas they don’t live in and where they don’t really have contact,” Dustin said.
The former mayor pointed to the Bear River Compact, which allocated water to Cache Valley and Box Elder Counties, as an example. The compact also includes parts of Wyoming and Idaho.
“Now the congressional district that’s going to be involved in solving a lot of this includes interest from both the Great Salt Lake and northern Utah, where that water is,” he said. “It puts our Congressman, whoever he is, in a very difficult position.”
By most accounts, the redistribution process was not particularly popular. In addition to emails and public comments, a Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found that only 25% of respondents supported the new congressional districts. Roughly 32% opposed the map.
But 43% replied “don’t know.”
Katie Wright, executive director of Better Boundaries, the group behind the 2018 ballot measure, says this is the main challenge with redistribution.
“It’s weird, it’s complicated, and it only happens once a decade. And so it doesn’t come as a surprise to us that there’s a large portion of Uton that isn’t deeply involved in this process,” she said. .
This apathy among the public may explain why lawmakers in Utah and across the country draw borders that seem unpopular to a politically vocal minority.
“If a significant percentage of voters are not paying attention to the issue … then lawmakers may feel excited, especially if their choice leads to increased success for the political party with the state’s majority,” said Chris Karpowitz, professor of political science at BYU.
Karpowitz says redistribution and perceived gerrymandering can also lead to less civic engagement, leaving some voters disenchanted with the process or inundated with messaging that suggests their voices don’t matter.
“It is concerning whether this is due to an increase in cynicism,” he said.
And finally, some politicians may have literally shielded themselves from political repercussions with new frontiers.
“When we think about accountability, we generally think that there is some possibility that elected officials will be removed from office. And increasingly, what is happening is that elected officials find themselves under those pressures. are creating districts to protect against, and also to give advantage of one party over the other,” Karpowitz told Deseret News and KSL-TV.
Soon after its establishment, lawmakers questioned whether the independent redistribution commission was actually allowed under the Utah Constitution, which gives responsibility to the Legislature.
There is a chance that the initiative could be deemed unconstitutional “simply because it took the constitutional power to draw lines from the legislative body and placed it in an independent commission,” Sandal says.
So lawmakers met with Better Boundaries, the group behind the 2018 ballot initiative, and amended the proposal so that it had more of an “advisory role,” Sandals said, to allow it to proceed under the state’s constitution.
Sandal says the public may have assumed that maps developed by the independent commission would be automatically adopted by the state. “From what I could read, there was never really this anticipation,” he said.
Some voters compared the amendment to the Legislature’s operation of Proposition 2, a 2018 ballot initiative, to legalize medical marijuana. The law was replaced in a special session with a new bill that outlined which medical providers could recommend marijuana and narrowed definitions for qualifying diseases. Some advocates of the resolution termed the special session as a power grab.
Karpowitz said voter-sanctioned ballot initiatives often need to be refined by lawmakers — “that’s certainly an important role for the legislature to play,” he said.
“The question that is being raised in Utah is a little different. Has the legislature concentrated so much power in itself that it is unwilling to listen to the voices of voters when they express their preference in the ballot box? … Where is the line between refining and enhancing public opinion and disregarding public opinion?”
After the maps were approved by the Utah Senate, Utah Governor Spencer Cox said he had no intention of vetoing them. Instead, he told the dismayed Utahs to focus on electing members of his own party to the Utah Legislature.
“I think the governor caught a lot of volatility, well, when he said so,” said King, who told Deseret News and KSL-TV that “the process we’ve really gone through, that’s on the potential. It has a tremendous impact. To vote for the different people of Utah to represent them.”
Is the deck stacked against the Utah Democrats? With the Congress map “no question”, says Raja. But he encouraged Uton to persevere.
“As frustrating as it is, there is no good alternative to being involved in the process.”
Shortly after the legislative committee recommended the maps, Better Boundaries launched a PAC with $50,000, according to the group’s website, “with the intention of defeating incumbents who demonstrated they were capable of serving constituents.” more interested in self-preservation and partisan politics”. And now the organization can put the districts in the dock.
Better Boundaries is currently taking donations for the legal challenge on its website, but in an earlier interview with Deseret News, executive director Katie Wright stressed that the group is still in its discovery phase.
“We take the idea of prosecuting really seriously. We certainly wouldn’t invest any of our donors’ funds in anything that is trivial,” Wright said. “So we have a look at that. assessing whether there is an achievable or viable route. And if so, we will look towards prosecuting it.”