SALT LAKE CITY — Legislators tasked with redrawing Utah's new political boundaries this year said they aren't bound by the suggestions of the newly created Independent Redistricting Commission, which is seeking to create a more open process and reduce gerrymandering.
"We simply cannot allow or release any of our obligation, potentially, from drawing maps," Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, co-chairman of the Legislative Redistricting Committee, told reporters at the state Capitol on Wednesday.
"We do anticipate that they're going to do their best job, that they're going to give us maps that they think are their best estimate, but at the end of the day, it's fully our responsibility to take that information and then move from there, not to go backwards and try to negotiate or navigate with them once they present to us," he said.
In 2018, voters narrowly approved a voter initiative to promote fairer drawing of legislative and congressional district boundaries. The 2020 Legislature passed a bill that set up the makeup of the independent commission tasked with coming up with redistricting recommendations based on the 2020 census. None of its seven members hold political office.
"It's elected officials that (ultimately decide) that because obviously the public has direct control over what we do through the elections versus an appointed commission that really answers to nobody," said committee co-chairman Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield.
Sandall acknowledged that "there may be some anticipation, some expectation of the public of what the role is of the independent redistricting commission. The reality is that the compromise was not what the ballot initiative said" because of the constitutional issues, Sandall said.
"In the end, as the Legislature, we feel it's completely 100% our responsibility and we welcome input from that commission, but at the end of the day we cannot be bound by it constitutionally," Sandall said.
Every 10 years, the U.S. Constitution requires state legislatures to redraw new district boundaries based on the most recent population data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The data determines the ideal size of Utah's Congressional, Senate, House of Representatives and State Board of Education districts.
This time around, legislators are on a tight deadline to get their work done before the next election cycle.
"We realize that normally we would've begun this process — 10 years ago, we would have had a lot of public input by this time. But because of COVID, we have come to a condensed timeline that we are willing and able to accomplish all that we need to do in a shorter period of time because of COVID," Sandall said.
Data from the Census Bureau is expected to arrive at the end of August, and it will take a few days to incorporate that into software to allow the public to draw the boundary lines they would prefer and submit their maps to the lawmakers.
"The delays will cause us to do our work quicker than we normally would, but we also realize that to get our election cycle on time, we need to complete this process by Thanksgiving to allow our county clerks enough time to have their districts redrawn and to know where the election cycle and process begins the first of January," Sandall said.
County clerks have said that they will have enough time for election preparations if the redistricting is complete and a special session of the Utah Legislature takes place to finalize it before Thanksgiving, according to Sandall.
Ray said the work will take place in six to eight weeks, rather than the six to eight months it has traditionally taken. During that time, the redistricting committee will hold 21 town hall meetings across the state to gather public input. The dates and locations of those meetings have yet to be announced.
Ray promised the redistricting process will be "very transparent."
When asked whether legislators will seriously consider maps suggested by the independent commission, Ray said the commission's map will be like "every other map submitted to us."
"I hope we do. I hope they give us a good map. I also hope the public gives us good maps that we can use their maps, it makes our job a lot easier," he said.
When asked for specifics about how Utah's political lines could be redrawn — particularly across rural and urban communities — the legislators said it's too soon to know with the census data not yet available.