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TAYLORSVILLE — With a booklet of a dozen printed maps lying on a table nearby, Utah Independent Redistricting Commission Chairman Rex Facer said he felt confident with the work of the commission despite many hardships over the past few months.
The first commission of its kind in Utah, whose work was stalled by months as a result of lengthy delays of the 2020 census data, essentially wrapped up work Monday by voting to complete three congressional maps it will propose to a committee of state legislators next week along with state legislative and school board maps. Those maps are now available for everyone to see online.
"Our maps have really turned out quite well," Facer said in a Tuesday press conference, adding they've scored well among partisan bias computer analyses conducted by Princeton Gerrymandering Project. "The commission has really tried to insulate itself from partisan data, so we've tried to stay away from those kinds of things."
He added that the commissioners ended up receiving over 2,000 public comments regarding its maps and 250 other comments regarding redistricting issues. Another 1,000 public comments were received regarding communities of interest.
"These comments have shaped our work and improved the maps we've drawn," Facer added. "We've been faithful to our criteria."
The six commissioners also on Tuesday stood by their 12 total maps even after one of the commissioners, former Utah congressman Rob Bishop, blasted the commission for its map-creating processes as he abruptly quit the commission Monday.
Facer said he is "saddened" by Bishop's departure and words about the commission; however, he said the commission is able to move on without Bishop. The chairman added he believes all 12 designs selected by the commissions are "high-quality maps" that followed the guidelines outlined by Utah law.
The Utah Independent Redistricting Commission was created from a ballot proposition that Utahns narrowly passed in 2018. It called for a group independent of the Utah Legislature to design the state's voting maps to avoid partisan gerrymandering, which is the process of creating voting boundaries that serve one political party or ideal over another.
It has been hard, it has been challenging but I think all of us can feel confident and satisfied as we make this presentation to the legislature next Monday.
–Karen Hale, Utah Independent Redistricting Commission
The initiative was altered by the Legislature in 2020, making the commission an advisory commission that creates nonpartisan voting maps to be considered by the Utah Legislative Redistricting Committee for the next decade. The members of the commission were selected by representatives of both the Republican and Democratic parties.
The commission is scheduled to meet with the Utah Legislative Redistricting Committee early next week over the proposed maps. Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, told KSL.com on Friday that the redistricting process is still on track for the Utah Legislature to vote on the final maps by mid-November. Those maps will then be used starting with the 2022 election cycle.
"I think we all feel satisfied that we were able to accomplish what our job was to be — that we met the task, that we really worked to comply with the criteria that was mandated within that statute, but additional criteria we adopted ... part of that not relying on partisan data," added commissioner Karen Hale. "It has been hard, it has been challenging, but I think all of us can feel confident and satisfied as we make this presentation to the Legislature next Monday."
Response to Bishop's exit
Monday's meeting, as exciting as it was for the commission, was mostly overshadowed by Rob Bishop's abrupt departure. He cited differences in the congressional mapping process, such as the possibility of avoiding urban-rural districts and other issues tied to private and public lands.
"What I'm telling you is I am frustrated with this process and I'm frustrated with what I am hearing, frustrated with where we are going, because this commission is designed not to work," Bishop said during the commission's meeting. "I respect each of you as an individual, but I'm sorry, as a group we suck."
Facer said Tuesday he disagrees with that view. He believes the commission has "tremendous value" in Utah's redistricting process, adding that the commission took steps to ensure the maps were designed in a "very transparent way."
The commissioners added that Bishop left before the commission voted to adopt a map that had "a very high urban-rural mix."
"We tried to present the Legislature with some different approaches that were all good maps, that all met the other criteria that we had," Facer explained.
Bishop on Monday acknowledged the commission deleted partisan data in designing boundaries. However, he attested that the boundaries discussed had clear partisan outcomes.
He referenced an old argument made by someone that since Democrats accounted for about 30% of Utah, that they should have one congressional district, and said he believes some of the proposed congressional boundaries would guarantee that would happen instead of the party having to find ways to persuade voters.
"You cannot gerrymander a Senate race, which is why the Democrats haven't elected a senator since 1970; you can gerrymander a congressional race and there are indeed special interest groups out there and want that to happen. ... It doesn't take a rocket scientist to look at these maps and (see) what will happen," Bishop said.
But commissioner Lyle Hillyard, a Republican former lawmaker like Bishop who was also nominated to the committee by a Republican legislator, said it was important to strip away partisan data, as was required by the statute of the commission.
Members of the commission stated that not a single set of information related to partisan data was considered at any point of the process. That includes the home addresses of any congressional or legislative incumbents. The point was to create maps based on the 2020 census and input from communities of interest, and nothing more.
"I really sense that if we were given partisan information and had to deal with that, this commission would have exploded," Hillyard said Tuesday. "I think that's what's happening at a national level. When you try to do these, you get involved in the partisan. What is the partisan? What weight do you give it? How do you do it? That's out of our bailiwick and I'm glad."
Bishop's exit quickly made waves in Utah's political sphere. Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, who nominated Bishop to the position, said he will not nominate a replacement. In a statement, he added that he shares Bishop's "frustrations with how the commission has conducted its business."
"His decision to step down at this point in the process is further evidence that the duly elected representatives of the people are best suited to redraw district boundaries, as the courts have repeatedly affirmed," Wilson's statement continued.
Hunter Davies, the director of redistricting operations for the Utah Democratic Party, on the other hand, took aim at Bishop as to why he left. They applauded the commission for removing partisan information from their maps.
"Let's be clear, this is a failure on the part of Rob Bishop; not the commission. He has continuously failed to represent Utahns and this tantrum and snap buzzer-beater quitting is just yet another example," Davies said in a statement.
In responding to Wilson's comment, Facer said he believes it's "refreshing" that the commission was able to conduct its business in an open and transparent manner. All the maps were drawn by bipartisan teams and done so through livestreaming so the public could see the work as it was happening.
"I think the commission has worked very well," he said. "The national experts that we talked to ... they have noted that we have been a model in the way our commission has functioned. ... Nobody else has tried to be as transparent as we have."
Katie Wright, the executive director of Better Boundaries, the organization that pushed for Proposition 4 in 2018, said she's thrilled with the outcome of the first commission process. She attended every meeting, including Tuesday's press briefing over the map.
"They've really knocked it out of the park," she said. "Additionally, Utahns have been really engaged. ... We know that Utahns are watching the process and appreciative of a transparent and open process, so Better Boundaries is really pleased with where we are now so far."
The work isn't quite over yet for the commission, even with the 12 maps revealed this week. Commissioner Christine Durham said the commission will still look for "refinements" and any other loose items, such as fixing any stray census blocks that could create problems for county clerks designing voting precincts.
Commissioner William Thorne added he and Hillyard were able to "fine-tune" about two dozen "city splits" that would help keep Utah cities in the same voting districts. All of that work will be conducted over the next few days leading into next week's meeting.
"We don't get to celebrate quite yet," Durham said.
Despite Monday's comments from Bishop and Wilson, Facer said he isn't too worried about how the legislative redistricting committee will receive the commission.
"I expected a warm welcome," he said with a chuckle before becoming more serious with his message.
"We have a statutory responsibility to present our maps to them but I think we have a moral responsibility to the voters of Utah, who voted for the commission," he said. "We have tried to be very forthright in our willingness to be helpful to the Legislature. We see our role as advising the Legislature, and we plan on doing just that."