Using ‘communities of interest’ in redistricting puts focus on how Utahns live rather than how they vote
When Utah lawmakers visited Salt Lake City’s Rose Park neighborhood in September for a redistricting meeting, they learned a lot more about the area than they probably expected — from its geographical boundaries to the history of how it came to be.
“Rose Park was developed right after World War II, when businesses and government were frantically trying to work together to address housing shortages,” resident Jennifer Seelig told them. “When all of this space was developed, nearly all of the new homeowners were World War II vets.”
Seelig has lived in Rose Park on the northwest side of Salt Lake for about two decades and represented the area in the Utah Legislature from 2006 to 2014.
“When I left office, I had an elected official ask me when I was going to move, since I’m no longer in office,” she said. “I said, ‘Hey, I'm staying. This is my neighborhood.’ And I did.”
Seelig said redistricting is important to her because she loves her community, but also because 10 years ago, part of Rose Park was pulled into a Senate district where their interests aren’t quite the same. It stayed in one House district, though.
“In the last redistricting process, a chunk of Rose Park was taken from the neighborhood and separated from the district and put with Davis County, and that was done for purely election purposes,” she said. “So, I'm here to respectfully request that the Rose Park neighborhood cohesiveness and identity be supported for what it is. Please put us back together.”
Rose Park, and many other neighborhoods — any of them, really — could be considered a community of interest in redistricting.
There’s no official definition, but generally it’s a geographical area with something in common. It could be that everyone in your neighborhood speaks Spanish. If you’re a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it could be your stake or it could be that your town has a tourism economy.
It’s one of the guidelines Utah’s Independent Redistricting Commission used in its mapmaking process. However, the group’s counterparts in the Legislature voted against considering keeping communities of interest intact as a redistricting principle.
Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, is one of the lawmakers leading redistricting. When one representative asked to consider communities of interest, Sandall said no way.
“I think that's a dangerous road to take,” he said. “I think it opens you up to a lot more litigation if you’ve adopted that as a principle. That anyone can define any one of a thousand communities of interest and come back to the redistricting commission and say, ‘You did not follow your principles or guidelines.’ Because it is so hard to define.”
Yurij Rudensky serves as redistricting counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. He doesn’t really buy Sandall’s argument and isn’t aware of any successful lawsuits where someone claimed communities of interest weren't “sufficiently preserved.”
“To me, that sounds like a bit of an excuse to not fully engage with the public and really understand the underlying communities,” Rudensky said.
He said when redistricting is led by communities of interest, it typically leads to less partisan maps.
“It involves putting aside political outcomes and instead thinking about, well, what are needs that people share,” he said. “In a suburban area, that could be something like a commuting corridor into a city’s downtown core. So, instead of thinking about how do people vote, it's thinking about how do people live?”
The independent commission said they received around a thousand examples from people defining their own communities of interest. Then they created a heat map from those submissions to show where there was overlap in people wanting to keep their areas together.
Rex Facer, chair of the commission, said one of the benefits of using this approach is it helps encourage public participation. He said that engagement is evident in the maps the group drew.
“The public can see the maps, they can see the iterations of the maps, and they can know that we're not only hearing them, but we're listening and trying to accommodate their perspectives as much as we can,” Facer said.
Seelig’s argument seemed to have hit home for some lawmakers. Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, is one of the co-chairs of the legislative committee. He said he told his colleagues that Rose Park is off the table because, among other factors, it’s one place where he feels residents truly care about each other.
“We do not split Rose Park. It stays together,” Ray said. “I've drawn a hard line on that Salt Lake/Davis County border, and I've said nothing goes back and forth. They stay where they are now.”
However, Ray can only promise the House district. Whatever Senate district Rose Park lands in is another matter.
The Legislative Redistricting Committee has its final public meeting on Monday.