How Utah Could End Partisan Gerrymandering
This November Utahns will have the chance to make partisan gerrymandering a thing of the past.
By Kolby Sorenson
This November, voters in Utah will have the chance to curb partisan gerrymandering and safeguard our democracy by voting for the Better Boundaries initiative, which was just certified for the ballot earlier this week as the Utah Independent Redistricting Commission and Standards Act.
I became involved with Better Boundaries after our local People Power group joined the Let People Vote campaign, the ACLU’s activist-led, 50-state voting rights push. Over the last few months, I canvassed my local community of Cache Valley, Utah, to collect signatures for the ballot measure and trained and organized dozens of volunteers throughout northern Utah to collect hundreds more.
Though the voters I met while canvassing held a diverse array of political views, most intuitively knew that partisan gerrymandering is detrimental to our democracy, and they wanted more accountability from their representatives — especially those in Washington, D.C.
Like most states, Utah’s Legislature draws the boundaries for congressional and state legislative districts every 10 years after the latest U.S. census. Unfortunately, lawmakers often abuse this power and try to manipulate elections by carving up communities and packing voters into gerrymandered districts in hopes of helping — or hurting — specific politicians or political parties.
Through the use of demographic modeling software and partisan political data, lawmakers can effectively decide the outcomes of elections before a single vote is cast.
Just look at what has happened in Utah: The state legislature, which is controlled by Republicans, created a congressional map of winding, jagged districts. Instead of doing what’s best for Utah’s communities, legislators conjured up this zigzagging map in order to divide Salt Lake County, the most populous county in the state, into three different congressional districts. In addition, six cities — Salt Lake City, Millcreek, West Valley City, American Fork, Lehi, and Park City — were split into different districts.
This was a brazen attempt to dilute the vote of Salt Lake County residents, who tend to be more liberal than voters elsewhere in the state, by slicing and dicing the county into more rural and conservative districts.
This doesn’t just hurt voters in Salt Lake County, who have effectively lost their voice in elections. It also harms voters who are parts of different communities of interest.
Why, then, should we Utahns settle for gerrymandered districts in which a single congressional representative is assigned to “represent” divergent communities of interest? All Utahns deserve to have representatives in Congress who genuinely represent them and can focus on the needs of our specific communities.
Partisan gerrymandering also makes our elections less competitive, which causes politicians to become less accountable to voters. When our representatives know that their re-election is all but guaranteed, they grow out of touch with our communities, becoming less accountable and less responsive to their constituents.
That’s why the Better Boundaries ballot initiative proposes taking away the redistricting power from state lawmakers, who have already shown that they will use it to disempower voters, and instead create an independent redistricting commission to compose the district maps.
The commission would have an even number of Democrats and Republicans plus one independent member. Members of the commission — none of whom may be lobbyists or political candidates (among other restrictions) — would be appointed by the governor along with the majority and minority leaders in the state legislature. To ensure that no single political party controls the process, a final map could only be passed by a super-majority vote.
Additionally, the commission would be required to adhere to two “rules” as closely as possible. First, that city and county boundaries are to remain intact, and communities of interest are to be bundled together wherever possible. And second, that partisan political data or incumbent addresses may not be used in the process of creating a map.
If the legislature rejects, by majority vote, a map composed by the commission, they would be able to draw their own map. But, they would also be required by law to hold a public hearing in which they must collect public comment and defend their new map in terms of its adherence to the two rules outlined above. If the new map does not comply with these rules — meaning it’s gerrymandered — the legislature would be in violation of the law and could then be sued.
Six other states are also considering measures to end gerrymandering as more voters express their outrage at politicians who seek to manipulate the redistricting process for their own partisan ends.
Voters throughout the country must rise up to support efforts like the Better Boundaries ballot initiative, which will help to restore the free and fair elections that form the foundation of our democratic society. At the end of the day, I think that nearly all Americans would agree that voters should choose their politicians, not the other way around.
Kolby Sorenson is an organizer with ACLU People Power in Cache County, Utah.