SALT LAKE CITY — Is Utah gerrymandered? Kind of, not really — it's complicated.
Utah's two major parties and experts explain why the current district lines are so divisive, and why a "fair" map is nearly impossible.
A complicated population
Of Utah's population of 3.2 million people, 1.9 million of them live along the Wasatch Front, the Salt Lake Tourist and Visitors Center reports.
The majority of Utahns lean Republican. But Salt Lake City and its surrounding county — the most populous areas of the state — lean Democratic and are sometimes referred to as a "dot of blue in a sea of red."
Despite the clear political community, Salt Lake city and county can't have their own congressional district.
"The overwhelming factor that determines congressional districts, of course, is population," explained Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the University of Utah. "What the people who draw the maps have to do is they have to draw lines for congressional districts that are approximately equal."
"That is always a challenge in Utah because our population is — by and large — all clustered around the Wasatch Front, and then it's a big state and it's spread out," he said.
"In practice, what you're going to have to do is take that population along the Wasatch Front and break it up," Burbank concluded.
So the Wasatch Front must be split. The arguments begin with how best to do so.
Currently, Salt Lake County is split into three congressional districts — the second, the third, and the fourth.
"The argument that Republicans used when they drew those lines is that all of our districts should have both rural areas and urban areas in them," Burbank explained. "That would be the way to make sure that all the members of Congress are attentive to both the concerns of rural areas, as well as the concerns of urban areas."
"But I think it's equally true — and this is what Democrats said at the time — is, well, you're only drawing the lines that way because you want to make sure that each of these districts has a substantial urban base, because of course Republicans tend to do quite well in areas that are predominantly rural," Burbank said, noting that three of the four congressional districts are easily Republican and that only the 4th district is competitive.
What we would ask for is fairness towards the communities that are being represented, not fairness to the political party that wants to represent those people,
–Jeff Merchant, head of the Utah Democratic Party
In the 2020 election, 58.2% of Utahns voted Donald Trump for president, and 37.7% voted for Joe Biden. All four of Utah's congressional seats — ideally representing 25% of the population each — were won by Republicans.
"This sort of depends upon who you are," Burbank said of the two sides, "What Republicans said was, 'well, you know, the majority of people in the state are Republican, therefore Republicans should probably win all of these districts.'"
"Democrats, of course, countered that by saying 'If you draw a district that's mostly urban ... even if it's a geographically smaller district, it has a lot of people in it —that could go to a Democrat, and then Republicans could win the other three," Burbank finished.
Is it fair?
"I don't know if 'fair' is the right word," Jeff Merchant, head of the Utah Democratic Party, said of the district lines drawn 10 years ago. "Certainly, if you are a rancher in Sanpete County, or you are someone who lives on the reservation down in San Juan, or in Uintah County, or you're a coal miner in Carbon County — the fact that you're being represented by four members of Congress and all of them live on the Wasatch Front is probably not something that you would call fair."
Carson Jorgensen, the newly elected head of the Republican Party as of May 2021, doesn't agree.
"I think the representation of our current districts are the best they could do at the time 10 years ago," Jorgensen said. "And I think once we see the new data, we'll be able to get a better idea of the growth in certain places, and we're better able to make it more representative of each individual district for the next 10 years."
The old and new 4th congressional district
Asked if Salt Lake County could be split into two districts instead of three, Burbank said, "Yes. I mean, it's something that could be done; it's been done in the past."
"The old second congressional district largely was Salt Lake City — not entirely, it was spread out a little bit more than that — but it had a heavy population base and that was where, for example, Jim Matheson ran and got elected several times as a Democrat," Burbank said, citing the congressional boundaries before their 2010 redistricting.
The reality is, anytime you have state legislators drawing those lines, they're simply going to take politics into account.
–Matthew Burbank, political science professor at the University of Utah
Burbank explained that after the Republican-controlled legislature redrew the lines the way they did, Matheson ran in the fourth congressional district because the second was no longer competitive. Matheson successfully won the fourth congressional district before retiring.
Speaking of today's fourth congressional district, whose lines were redrawn in 2010, Burbank said, "That was one Republicans thought they had done in such a way that they were going to win consistently — and they didn't, they weren't able to quite do that ... In fact, it's been kind of highly competitive; it's gone back and forth."
"It's possible to have ways of drawing those lines that are a little less politically sensitive. But the reality is, any time you have state legislators drawing those lines, they're simply going to take politics into account," Burbank said, noting that state representatives have a vested interest in drawing lines that will advantage them in elections and disadvantage their opponents.
Both party heads noted that one goal of redistricting is to split counties and cities less than in the past and to take a look at past practices.
"I think that the purpose of redistricting is to make sure that people that are similar to me — to use the legal term, 'communities of interest' — stay together," said Merchant, noting that he believes partisan areas like Salt Lake City and Piute County should both have representation that follows their political beliefs.
"I think from the Democratic Party's perspective, what we would ask for is fairness towards the communities that are being represented, not fairness to the political party that wants to represent those people," Merchant stated.
Eventually, something's going to get split, whether we like it or not,
–Carson Jorgensen, head of the Utah Republican Party
Asked if he supported keeping counties and cities together in the redistricting process, Jorgensen said, "I think when possible. I think our current laws kind of speak for themselves on that."
When asked about criticisms in the Salt Lake County split, Jorgensen noted that he hadn't been involved in past redistricting cycles, but he hopes to look into the boundaries moving forward.
"I think it's something that we have to take a long, fair look at," Jorgensen said. "I believe that's why they created that Independent Redistricting Commission, so we can really tell what's best for the state of Utah and what's best for the people. I think all things should be considered."
Is Utah gerrymandered?
"I'm not sure I would use the term 'gerrymandered,'" Burbank said. "It generally implies is that the lines are drawn primarily for partisan purposes."
"I don't think that's true," Burbank continued. "I think that, again, one of the challenges that Utah always has is that the bulk of our population is right in this very small area."
Burbank said the split in Salt Lake County "was done explicitly, and that was done for partisan purposes, but you still always have that challenge — no matter how you try to draw the districts, you've got to try to draw them in a way in which you have equal population in them. Given that, you're just not going to be able to have Salt Lake County being a single congressional district, simply because there are way too many people here and there wouldn't be enough in the other regional districts."
"We also have to have districts that are going to incorporate Cache Valley, and Washington County in Southern Utah, and San Juan County and in southern Utah," Burbank added. "As a result of that, there's no way that you can have districts that are just going to be nicely contiguous along the Wasatch Front."
"Of course, I think the parts of Utah are gerrymandered," he said. "Go down to Price, Utah. Here's a community where, between them and Emery County for 100 years, they've had similar interests, they've worked side by side ... yet they're in separate House districts, and instead, Carbon County is paired with a portion of Duchesne County, which has nothing to do with what goes on in Carbon County — and it's even difficult to get to from Carbon County!"
"I think that those are some of the inherent problems with the way that the Republicans have decided to focus on what they would call redistricting and what I would call gerrymandering," Merchant said.
Jorgensen believes the current districts are fair, and that creating a blue district would also involve politically advantageous boundaries. "How would we have to split that? To accomplish that, we'd be splitting counties."
"I do know that they have to meet those certain quotas," Jorgensen noted. "Eventually, something's going to get split, whether we like it or not."