Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — It only happens every 10 years.
With the release of 2020 census data last week, lawmakers across the nation are beginning redistricting processes to help decide who represents Americans — all the way from Congress to state legislatures to school boards.
How decisions are made on important issues that impact day-to-day life starts here.
In Utah, it began Monday at 11 a.m. at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City, when the state's Legislative Redistricting Committee held its first of 19 public hearings over the next three months.
That 20-member committee made up of 15 Republicans and five Democrats will field proposals from a newly created independent redistricting commission and the public for what the boundaries of Utah's political districts should be for the next decade.
In short? It's time to draw some maps. Let's get to it.
What is redistricting?
Every decade, the Utah Legislature redraws political boundaries based on the results of the most recent population data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Utah officials received that raw data on Thursday.
Now begins the task of using that data to determine the size, shape and boundary lines of Utah's four congressional districts, 29 state Senate seats, 75 state House seats and state school board districts.
Leading up to this year's redistricting, Utah voters in 2018 narrowly approved a ballot initiative calling for an independent redistricting commission to draw the new maps, seeking to prevent partisan gerrymandering. The proposition, named Better Boundaries, passed by less than 1 percentage point.
In 2020, the Legislature struck a deal with Better Boundaries backers, designating the Utah Independent Redistricting Commission as an adviser to state lawmakers, who will ultimately decide what maps get approved. Lawmakers sought the compromise to preserve the spirit of the ballot initiative while not overriding the Legislature's constitutional duties to oversee redistricting.
While the independent redistricting commission will advise the Legislature, lawmakers aren't required to adopt its maps. The Legislative Redistricting Committee is required, however, to hold a public hearing to consider up to three sets of maps drawn by that commission.
Ahead of the legislative committee's first public meeting, the Utah Independent Redistricting Commission along with mayors from Salt Lake, Utah, Davis, Summit, and Tooele counties held a news conference to urge the public to get involved in the process by submitting recommended maps on its website.
Why does redistricting matter?
That's why Rex Facer, chairman of the independent redistricting commission, says every Utahn should care about the process that's about to begin.
"It will determine who they have as representatives over the next 10 years, both at the national level in Congress, but also at the state House and Senate level as well as the state school board," he said.
Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, the House chairman of the Legislative Redistricting Committee, said it matters because it's deciding how Utahns' will get "fair representation."
"We're setting out your representation, your voice," Ray said. "It's important to be involved so you have a say on who your representation is. ... So that you're not the only lone voice for your beliefs."
In a time when distrust of government is more pervasive than ever, Facer said Utahns can have more confidence in their government if they understand and participate in redistricting.
"People have concerns. And when they have concerns, it creates distrust," he said. "We want to minimize that distrust and help people have confidence that their government really is representing them and is there for them."
The aim, both Facer and Ray told the Deseret News, is for the process to be apolitical — focused more on representing communities than certain political parties.
But Ray said it's likely more districts will turn out to favor Republicans simply because Utah is a more conservative state by sheer numbers. "You actually have to gerrymander to create a blue district in a lot of areas," he said. "That would take a lot of gerrymandering."
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant said Monday his party will be watching to ensure Utahns, not partisan Republicans get to choose their future elected representatives — and he said that's why the party will support the maps drawn by the independent redistricting commission, "whether those maps benefit the Democratic party or not."
"Voters should choose their elected officials. Elected officials should not choose their voters," Merchant said. "By following the lines of the Independent Redistricting Commission, the House and Senate have the chance to give Utahns lines they can trust."
Utah GOP Chairman Carson Jorgensen said he "truly believes" the lines that were drawn 10 years ago "were as good as they could do with the data they had." And Utah's next set of maps, he said, will "be the best maps that we can do to represent the state of Utah."
"I truly believe that we need to do what we can and do our best to represent the state as a whole," Jorgensen said.
How will district boundaries shift?
That's the big question to be answered as the independent commission and lawmakers pore over map drafts over the next several weeks.
Census data reviewed during the Legislative Redistricting Committee's first meeting Monday give early insights into where boundaries are likely to change due to population growth and how those shifts will ripple out across the rest of the state.
Southern Salt Lake County near Herriman, northern Utah County and Washington County all saw bigger percentages in growth than other areas of the state — meaning those areas may gain a House seat.
Meanwhile, other Salt Lake County areas like West Valley City, in particular, didn't see as much population growth, so it's likely those areas' boundaries will shift and possibly lose representation, according to a presentation by Jerry Howe, strategic initiatives manager for the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel, in front of Monday's legislative committee.
"Here's the real story in the House," Howe says.— Katie McKellar (@KatieMcKellar1) August 16, 2021
Big losses and shifts happening in West Valley city districts. Howe says all of these districts will shift south to accommodate growth of District 52 #utpol#utlegpic.twitter.com/s6VcDkxzMv
Howe presented maps based on the census data, explaining areas in blue are "losing representation" and red areas indicate areas that have grown in population. In other words, Howe described dark red areas — or areas with the most population growth — as an "epicenter" that will create a "ripple effect" on neighboring blue districts.
Based on early indications from census data, Ray told the Deseret News in an interview last week it's likely "inevitable" boundaries will shift away from Salt Lake City areas to give more representation in high population growth areas like southern Salt Lake County and Utah County.
As for the booming St. George area in Washington County, "they've got enough numbers for half of a seat there," Ray said, "so we're going to have to draw from probably rural Utah to cover that. And that could actually mean some problems for rural Utah in numbers of representation."
Ray and Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, the Senate chairman of the Legislative Redistricting Committee, joked to reporters after Monday's committee meeting that lawmakers were "hyperventilating" at the "daunting" task ahead of them.
Districts in and around Salt Lake and Utah counties will likely be the most challenging to draw, Sandall said, "because we already have smaller geographical areas that are gaining and losing relative population."
Launching the legislative committee's work with a sense of humor, Ray and Sandall wore ties with pizza slices and donuts to pay tribute to the past debate: whether Utah districts should be sliced like a pizza or carved out in doughnut holes.
To kick off the first meeting with some humor, Rep. Ray and Sen. Sandal wore pizza and donut ties to pay homage to the debate.— Katie McKellar (@KatieMcKellar1) August 16, 2021
"I like them both equally," Ray says, to his doctor's dismay #utpol#utlegpic.twitter.com/i9SocZ6s8m
How to get involved
Want to draw a map? You can submit one using an online tool on redistricting.utah.gov/maps. The link to submit drawings will be activated next week. You can also use a mapping tool on the Utah Independent Redistricting Commission's website, uirc.utah.gov.
You can also participate in the process by attending one of the Legislative Redistricting Committee's 19 public hearings scheduled in September, October and November throughout the state.
Past commission meeting minutes and audio have also been posted on the Utah Independent Redistricting Commission's website at uirc.utah.gov.
Public meeting schedule
- Sept. 2 at 10 a.m. at the Capitol.
- Sept. 8 at 6 p.m. in Grantsville.
- Sept. 9 at 2 p.m. in Ogden.
- Sept. 9 at 7 p.m. in Logan.
- Sept. 13 at 6 p.m. in Orem.
- Sept. 14 at 7 p.m. in Rose Park, Salt Lake City.
- Sept. 24 at 1 p.m. in Cedar City.
- Sept. 25 at 10 a.m. in St. George.
- Oct. 6 at 10 a.m. in Richfield.
- Oct. 6 at 6 p.m. in Moab.
- Oct. 7 at 1 p.m. in Price.
- Oct. 8 at 10 a.m in Vernal.
- Oct. 8 at 6 p.m. in Park City.
- Oct. 13 at 6 p.m. in Clearfield.
- Oct. 19 at 6 p.m. at the Capitol.
- Nov. 1 at 6 p.m. at the Capitol.
- Nov. 9 at 9 a.m. at the Capitol.
- Nov. 10 at 9 a.m. at the Capitol.
Dates and times may change.