Utahns will begin voting on three citizen-led initiatives when ballots start hitting mailboxes soon. This week, we’re bringing you stories of voices behind the initiatives—people who could be directly affected if they pass.
On a quiet afternoon in Holladay, Utah as cars zoomed by the town square and people headed to lunch.
The wealthy Salt Lake suburb is home to just over 30,000 people. It’s a peaceful place, but Catherine Kanter believes there’s something sinister going on here: gerrymandering.
“Typically, a single state House seat would hold about 30,000 people,” Kanter said. “Holladay is split up into four state House seats, two state Senate seats and two congressional seats. That doesn’t make any sense.”
Kanter, a Democrat, is the campaign manager for Utah’s Proposition 4, also known as Better Boundaries. The initiative is being pushed by a coalition of Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters.
The Utah Constitution gives redistricting power to lawmakers. But if voters approve it, Proposition 4 would create a citizen-led commission to draw new political maps after the 2020 census. The seven commissioners would be appointed by lawmakers from both parties. But the legislature would still get the final say on new maps.
Kanter said it’s an easy way to fix the inherent conflict of interest that arises when lawmakers draw lines for their own districts.
“Politicians should have to listen to their voters. They should have to be responsive and accountable. But in a heavily gerrymandered district, all of that starts to break down,” Kanter said.
If it passes, Proposition 4’s redistricting commission would have to follow a set of rules which includes keeping counties and cities like Holladay as intact as possible.
At stake is one of Utah’s four congressional districts. After the last round of redistricting in 2011, liberal-leaning Salt Lake County was split into three congressional districts. Each of Utah’s four House members represents urban and rural areas, a conflict Kanter said is another product of political gerrymandering.
But not all Republicans are on board with the idea, especially Republican lawmakers like state senator Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross. He’s skeptical of Better Boundaries’ true intentions.
“I don’t think this is about political gerrymandering. I think this is about the Democrats getting a seat in Congress — a guaranteed seat that they can’t lose every election cycle,” Weiler said.
Weiler conceded that it is a conflict for politicians to draw their own districts, but it’s a conflict that doesn’t really bother him.
“In politics, some of the spoils go to the winners, and if you win enough elections and you have a majority, there are some advantages to that party,” Weiler said. “But I don’t think those powers should be abused.”
Typically, about 30 percent of Utahns vote Democrat in statewide elections — not enough for Democrats to win many races, Weiler said.
“Could we draw a district that the Democrats would never lose? Yes, if we want to do political gerrymandering, that could be done.” Weiler added.
Blake Moore is a Republican co-chair of the Better Boundaries initiative, and he sees things a bit differently than Weiler.
“This will not allow anybody to ‘gerrymander’ anymore,” Moore said.
Earlier this month, Moore participated in a fun-run event called a “Gerry-meander,” where participants ran a 5k through four different State House districts in Salt Lake City.
Moore said the proposition is about adding accountability and transparency to Utah’s redistricting process.
“This will just establish a straightforward process — a commission and additional standards that we think are simply fair,” Moore said.
Jesse Harris said he plans to vote “no” on Prop 4. The Cedar City Republican said he doesn’t have any issues with the current political maps. And he said while an independent commission sounds like a good idea, he’s not so sure.
“There’s this idea that ‘independent’ automatically means virtuous, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that,” Harris said. “They’re going to bring their own biases to the table — they’re going to bring their own wants to the table.”
Moore, the Republican Prop 4 backer, said it’s tough to hear sentiments like that from members of his own party. But his team is confident their support will carry over to the election — which is now just a month away.