How should Salt Lake County be split into Congressional districts? The question has big partisan implications
Utah state lawmakers are meeting on Tuesday to finalize new district maps for Congress — as well as the state House, Senate and school board. One of the big looming questions is how to divide Salt Lake County when drawing the Congressional maps.
The state Legislature’s answer to that question could determine whether Utah has a Democratic representative.
All four of Utah’s Congressional districts need to represent roughly the same number of people. Salt Lake County has about a third of the state’s population, which means it needs to be put into at least two districts. Right now, it’s split three ways. County Mayor Jenny Wilson and 11 city mayors signed on to a letter urging the state to only divide it twice.
Wilson said it’s a lot easier to advocate for the county when it comes to certain issues, if it has fewer Congressional representatives.
“I mean, take transportation,” she said, “we rely so much on federal funding and when our Wasatch Front Regional Council has four congressmen and women or three, it gets very tricky.”
Bluffdale Mayor Derk Timothy did not sign on to that letter. He said even though he’d like to see the county put into two districts — and he thinks state law already requires that — there may be situations where being split three ways is better.
“To me, where they divide it is more important than how many they divide,” Timothy said. “Because I think there would be more things at play there. There's the differences of opinion or differences in values, or maybe there's a difference in socioeconomic [status] — all of that needs to be looked at.”
The debate is partisan
Salt Lake County is the only major Democratic power base in Utah. All of the suggested maps from the Independent Redistricting Commission — which are advisory — slice Salt Lake County into two districts. Every option has at least one that leans Democratic, according to the Princeton Redistricting Project.
South Jordan resident Stuart Hepworth said he thinks the current maps — which split the county into three districts that all lean Republican — are designed unfairly to help the GOP.
“They don't want a Democrat to be elected from Utah, so they pair urban areas with rural areas,” Hepworth said. “The reason they do that is to dilute Democratic votes. … If you think the current map is fair you don't know the first thing about redistricting or you're a Republican hack.”
But Casey Saxton from Riverton said the current split makes sense. He added that all maps approved by a Republican Legislature are going to lean that way.
“Anytime you chop up a community and in this case, let's consider Salt Lake County a community, it probably dilutes that community's voice,” Saxton said. “However, I will also add to that that Salt Lake County is an incredibly diverse county — politically, racially [and] geographically — we're very, very different people. So I can understand why it would be split.”
The Princeton group gave the proposed maps from the independent commission with one democratic district an “A” for “partisan fairness.”
But the Republican supermajority state Legislature will ultimately have the final say.
Legislative Redistricting Committee Chair Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, said the proposed maps from the independent group are designed to help Democrats.
“There is almost an impossible task to try to take bias out of a map, no matter what you do,” he said. “I think it was shown, quite honestly, that [the Independent Redistricting Commission] disallowed a map that their people had worked on: that green map.”
The suggested green map — which the commission voted not to recommend to the Legislature — looks fairly similar to the current map. It would slice Salt Lake County into three districts and cause all of the state’s districts to heavily favor Republicans, according to the polling website FiveThirtyEight.
Right now, only three heavily favor Republicans and the other is a swing district that slightly favors Republicans.
Is it gerrymandering?
Brigham Young University political science professor Quin Monson said the current district lines are a prime example of gerrymandering.
“It's a classic case of cracking,” he said, “where the Democratic voters in Salt Lake County have been divided up and split between the Congressional districts to make four Congressional districts that are Republican-leaning.”
But partisan gerrymandering is legal.
“The Supreme Court and courts have by and large tried to stay away from the question of ‘Is this partisan gerrymandering?’ ” said University of Utah Political Science Professor Matthew Burbank. “Because they see that really as being a political question, not a legal question … They are also very attentive to the fact that they are a co-equal branch along with the executive and the Legislature, and they really do not want to get into legislative business if they can avoid that.”
The Legislative Redistricting Committee is set to have a public hearing on their maps on Monday. Then, the entire Legislature is expected to vote on them on Tuesday.