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UPDATE: Utah Lawmakers Working to Revise New Anti-Gerrymandering Law

Photo of three women and a man holding white signs with black lettering, reading “ “Prop 2,” “Prop 3,” “Tax Reform,” “Prop 4” and “We will remember to vote in November.”
Sonja Hutson
Protestors stood outside Utah's House chamber Friday, disgruntled that the legislature is considering altering the last of three successful ballot initiatives from 2018.

Updated 2:53 p.m. MT, 2/21/20

Voters narrowly approved Proposition 4, also known as Better Boundaries, in 2018. It would create an independent commission to draw congressional and legislative district lines, which would then have to be approved by the legislature. 

But some lawmakers have said there are constitutional issues with Proposition 4 and have been in negotiations with the group backing it, Better Boundaries. Those negotiations broke down Thursday, prompting lawmakers to start work on a bill to change it. 

The sticking point was a provision in the law that prohibits the commission from gerrymandering districts based on their partisan makeups. Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, who is sponsoring the upcoming bill, said Better Boundaries couldn’t adequately define “partisan gerrymandering.”

“We asked multiple times for them to give us a clear definition, they could not,” said Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, who is sponsoring the upcoming bill. Its language has not yet been made public. “They have four or five different ways to analyze a map and said one of these four or five ways may tell you whether it's gerrymandering or not. That is not a quantifiable, precise definition of a term that would be embodied in statute and be the basis for litigation.”

According to Bramble, his bill will remove that partisan gerrymandering ban, although the commission could choose to adopt its own rules that reinstate it. 

“If they want to adopt standards that reference gerrymandering, that would be up to them,” Bramble said. “But to put a term in state statute that can't be defined, we weren't willing to do that.”

But Better Boundaries contends that Proposition 4 is constitutional. 

“We've passed this proposition,” said Better Boundaries Executive Director Rebecca Chavez-Houck. “It has met constitutional muster. [If it hadn’t] it wouldn't have been able to be placed on the ballot. It was reviewed by the lieutenant governor's office.” 

Chavez-Houck added that the gerrymandering requirement is the heart of the law, and removing it essentially overturns the proposition. 

“[Proposition 4] helps build up the confidence of the public that when redistricting does occur, that all of these standards and these restrictions are going to be in place,” Chavez-Houck said. “So the public will know the standards and the guidelines have been followed, and they'll have confidence in the work that has been done.”

But, Bramble argued that Proposition 4 is still intact. 

“The voters wanted an independent redistricting commission,” Bramble said. “We’re maintaining that.”

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, added that he does not think there is significant gerrymandering going on in Utah. 

“[Redistricting] was designed to be a political process,” he said. “The constitution indicates that's the case. And so I would hope that we do what's in the best interest of the state and gerrymandering is not something that we see in a significant way. It is a lot harder to do than it sounds.”

Chavez-Houck, however, said many people were concerned when the legislature split the Salt Lake City metropolitan area into three different Congressional districts in 2011, eliminating the one solidly Democratic district in the state. 

If Bramble’s bill passes, this would be the last of three initiatives approved by voters in 2018 that the legislature changed. Protestors stood outside the House chamber after Friday’s Proposition 4 announcement with signs that read “Prop 2,” “Prop 3,” “Tax Reform,” “Prop 4” and “We will remember to vote in November.” 

“The people of Utah have had enough,” said Katie Matheson, communications director for Alliance for a Better Utah, who held the “Prop 2” sign outside the House chamber. “Fed up with them changing the propositions that are passed by the voters. The people have expressed their will and the legislature is expressly ignoring that will.”

Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, defended the changes that the legislature has made to those propositions. 

“If you have a bill that you have not had a chance to vet, you don't have a chance to amend, and it's unconstitutional, do you just go ahead and implement it?” Vickers said. 

Vickers and Bramble both said they would oppose an outright repeal of Proposition 4, if it was proposed.

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
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