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Find KUER's reporting on the races, candidates and more for Utah’s 2018 midterm elections. Click here for our graphics of the U.S. Senate race, 4 Congressional races and Utah ballot initiatives.

Bipartisan Redistricting Ballot Initiative Remains Too Close To Call

Photo of Prop 4 signs.
Renee Bright / KUER

Proposition 4, the redistricting proposal also known as Better Boundaries, led by several thousand votes early Wednesday morning.

The citizen ballot initiative would create a new bipartisan commission to oversee the design of state voting district maps after the 2020 Census.

“We expected to do a little better than we’re doing right now but the night’s not over,” said Jeff Wright, Republican co-chair with Better Boundaries on Tuesday.

If passed, the seven-member commission would design legislative, congressional and school board district maps. These maps are redrawn every 10 years after the U.S. Census is taken to account for population changes and ensure that voting districts include roughly equal numbers of people across the state.

The Apolitical Threat Of Gerrymandering

Because political lines are largely drawn from the Census, that redrawing process is contentious and can result in gerrymandering — that’s when districts are drawn to concentrate one voter group while splitting up another, thus manipulating their influence. As a political strategy, gerrymandering is used by Republicans and Democrats alike.

The 2018 special election in San Juan County is one example. It stemmed from a federal judge ruling in 2016 that the predominantly Republican county commission districts minimized the political influence of Navajos, who make up a slight majority of the county and who tend to affiliate with Democrats or Independents. After the ruling, the county commission and school board boundaries were redrawn.

But, that hasn’t solved the representation problems, said Commissioner Phil Lyman. Lyman, who won the race to replace Republican Mike Noel in the House District 73 seat, said the new district boundaries have simply been gerrymandered in the opposite direction. The district boundaries now favor Democrats, with Navajos in two out of three commission district seats.

“They’re as unconstitutional now as they were before,” Lyman said in an interview last month.

In the official proposition description on the Utah Elections website, the Better Boundaries campaign described the case of Holladay, Utah, which is divided into two Congressional districts, two State Senate districts and four State House Districts.

“Who benefits from this? Holladay voters don’t, but politicians do. Incumbents in safe districts are less responsive to voters and more responsive to special interests,” the description reads.

To address these issues, Proposition 4 would create a seven-member commission that includes two Republicans, two Democrats and two unaffiliated representatives, plus a commission chair, appointed by the Governor. The commission cannot include politicians, lobbyists or government appointees. Its commissioners would be responsible for drawing the new district maps and submitting them to the legislature for consideration.

Fears Of Partisan Politics

Critics say Proposition 4 is a liberal plan to wrest political control from Republicans, particularly in the congressional seat around the urban hub of Salt Lake City. In the official argument against the proposition, Sen. Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, called it a “cleverly disguised partisan power grab.”

“Republicans, Democrats and Independents have voted for this, so I don’t really see this as a Democratic issue. We see this as a very bipartisan issue,” said Jeff Wright, with the Better Boundaries campaign.

Republican representatives in Utah have supported previous redistricting efforts. Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Tooele, sponsored similar legislation during the 2017 legislative session to establish statewide redistricting standards to keep communities in districts whole, rather than splintering them apart. The bill passed in the state House but failed to get enough support in the Senate.

After his bill failed in the majority Republican legislature, Nelson noted, “There’s natural resistance to it because of the personal conflict of interest.”

Similar independent redistricting commissions were also passed on Tuesday night in Michigan and Colorado.

Erik Neumann is a radio producer and writer. A native of the Pacific Northwest, his work has appeared on public radio stations and in magazines along the West Coast. He received his Bachelor's Degree in geography from the University of Washington and a Master's in Journalism from UC Berkeley. Besides working at KUER, he enjoys being outside in just about every way possible.
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