TAYLORSVILLE — The chair of the Utah Independent Redistricting Commission said Tuesday that it's possible the commission could start designing its first drafts of state voting maps in August, which would be a month earlier than what was originally expected based on 2020 Census delays.
If so, it has nothing to do with new data released by the Census Bureau Monday and everything to do with what the Census Bureau announced last month. Agency officials said on March 15 it is expected to release "legacy format" data in mid-to-late August, which is raw data not compiled into simpler tables and tools for states using the information to create voting boundaries.
"There are some challenges to using that data but it's possible that as soon as mid-August, we may be able to start drawing some maps," said Rex Facer, the chairperson of the commission.
The Census Bureau still anticipates the data compiled in the tables and tools like in decades past will be made available to states by the end of September at the latest. Regardless of when the redrawing begins, the commission's deadline to present redistricting designs is Nov. 1.
One item that won't be up for discussion is how to handle changes to congressional seat apportionment since Utah was not among the states that gained or lost seats. Still, members of the commission spoke about the hardships they anticipate as the year continues.
A large chunk of Tuesday's meeting centered around a presentation by commission member Jeff Baker regarding redistricting and reprecincting issues that arose from the last time the state went through the process a decade ago.
Baker concluded his presentation noting that the commission had two options: fix issues from a decade ago or kick the can down the road for the next redistricting process a decade from now. Regardless of the maps drawn by the commission, he said there will be counties that approach the legislature with concerns about the maps.
The presentation carried into a candid discussion regarding how the different commissioners would define success from this year's redistricting process.
Commission member Karen Hale suggested that success would be if the public agreed there was a "sincere effort to provide a public process for redistricting." She said she understood that it would be unlikely everyone will agree with the final maps, but perhaps they could accept that there was a transparent and inclusive process.
That's especially true if the seven-member commission can show they took a nonpartisan approach to the process, which was the original intent behind the creation of the commission, added commission member Christine Durham.
"I think our mission, to some extent, is to increase the faith of Utahns that this really thorny subject can be approached by people of goodwill who don't have dogs in the fight in terms of the results — and that's us in the commission," she said. "I think that the independence in this commission is key … and openness to public participation and input is going to be a really important way in which we demonstrate that."
The bottom line is, if we want the public to trust us, we have to get their input and show them through the various boundaries that we come up with that they are inclusive.
–Utah Independent Redistricting Commission member Jeff Baker
Commission member Lyle Hillyard was perhaps a bit less enthusiastic when it came to defining success. He likened the process to public education bills in the Utah Legislature that would resort to all sorts of opinions. In this case, he anticipated there would be negative opinions over how neighborhoods were split up in the maps.
"I think it's going to be an impossible task. … I don't know if there is a — maybe the definition is, if only 98% of people hate us maybe we've done it perfect," he said, garnering a chuckle from others in the room.
He added that he agreed with what Hale said but also acknowledged the very short timeframe to conduct the process due to the Census Bureau delays.
For that matter, the general consensus among the members was that they didn't believe everyone would agree with the final product no matter what it looks like in the end. Commission member Rob Bishop said he believed it is important that the commission define its priorities in how it will divide the data before they could define success.
Baker added that it would be important to identify "communities of interest" and find ways to represent those groups fairly.
"The bottom line is, if we want the public to trust us, we have to get their input and show them through the various boundaries that we come up with that they are inclusive," he said.
Fresh faces within the commission
Tuesday's meeting was the first for Hale, a former Utah state senator, Salt Lake City communications director and Salt Lake County deputy mayor. She was selected by Utah Democrats last week to replace former commission member Pat Jones, who resigned prior to the commission's first meeting earlier this month.
"I really look forward to working with all of you," Hale told the other commission member at the beginning of the meeting. "I know our task is great and I know I have big shoes to fill with the void left by Sen. Jones, our esteemed colleague. I know as we go forward with this task, I share your desire to serve with integrity and to ensure that we have a transparent, inclusive process."
Hillyard quickly pointed out to the other commission members that Hale was also picked as Scott Matheson Jr.'s running mate for the 2004 gubernatorial election. Running for lieutenant governor meant that she traveled all over the state and got to meet people from all over.
"So she's not just from Salt Lake," Hillyard said. "She has a statewide perspective."
The commission also voted unanimously to approve the selection of its first-ever executive director: Gordon Haight, an assistant city manager and director of strategic services for Herriman City.
Facer said the commission met with Haight and three other candidates for the job last week and he was the overwhelming favorite for the position. It wasn't immediately clear if that meant Haight was stepping down from his Herriman City position, but Facer said Haight would serve as executive director in a full-time job over the next few months that the commission exists.
"It'll be nice to have some additional support," Facer said.
OK, let's try this again
Tuesday's meeting ran much smoother than the commission's inaugural meeting earlier this month.
Rex said that he met with state technology service professionals after the commission's disastrous April 13 meeting, which ended when individuals jumped into the chat to display pornographic material, blast music with racist and vulgar lyrics and even pretend to be Russian hackers.
This time, only a select few people had access to join through the video teleconference app Zoom and it was streamed live through YouTube. Some comment functions were turned off to avoid disruption like the commission experienced on April 13.
Later in the meeting, Facer said the commission was closing in on being able to launch a new website that is expected to be up and running in the coming weeks. The website is expected to eventually contain information about the commission, timelines for projects and eventually proposed maps.
"One of the things we are planning to do as a part of the website is the opportunity for individuals to draw their own maps," he said. "Some of that could be for the communities of interest, some of it may be for the other legislative districts, etc."
Facer added that the commission was waiting on the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel to finalize contracts with vendors who will make that software technology possible for anyone to use while visiting the site. One of the companies is the GIS tech company Esri.
In addition to the website, the commission opened a new email address for public comments and feedback: email@example.com
"We want your comments," Facer said. "We just want them in a forum that is appropriate for understanding and ability to document, as well."