Utah business, community leaders call for Legislature, Cox to adopt nonpartisan voting maps

Scott Young urges lawmakers and Gov. Spencer Cox to adopt voting maps from the state's Independent Redistricting Commission during a press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 8, 2021.

Scott Young urges lawmakers and Gov. Spencer Cox to adopt voting maps from the state's Independent Redistricting Commission during a press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 8, 2021. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 7-8 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — As Utah legislators prepare to vote on Utah's congressional, legislative and school board maps for the next decade, dozens of prominent Utah business, nonprofit and community leaders from both parties are urging that they adopt voting maps designed by an independent commission over a proposal designed by a legislative committee.

Eighty-four individuals and organizations, including Zions Bank CEO Scott Anderson, developer Kem C. Gardner, three former Salt Lake City mayors, and the ALCU of Utah signed an open letter sent to state legislators Monday, just ahead of Tuesday's special legislative session. Nearly a dozen of those who signed the letter came to the state Capitol on Monday ahead of the legislative committee's meeting to discuss their letter.

"We insist that our Legislature do the right thing and adopt redistricting maps submitted to the Legislature by the Utah Independent Redistricting Commission rather than to adopt the politically motivated maps prepared behind closed doors by the Legislative Redistricting Committee," said Jonathan Ruga, CEO of Sentry Financial. "The right to vote and to have our votes counted is a foundation of a democracy."

The Utah Independent Redistricting Commission and Utah Legislative Redistricting Committee are the two groups that designed maps for the Utah Legislature to vote on Tuesday.

The commission was created as a result of a proposition that passed in 2018, calling for an independent arm in the redistricting process to eliminate issues associated with partisan-leaning boundary lines, referred to as gerrymandering. The commission was altered in the Utah Legislature to be an advisory arm for the legislative committee. It's composed of residents appointed by leaders of both political parties. The independent commission revealed its maps at the end of October.

The committee is composed of elected officials across the state. The letter comes just a few days after the legislative committee posted its proposed congressional, legislative and school board maps. The maps, uploaded to the committee's website just before 10 p.m. Friday, were widely panned by people who submitted public comments on the committee's website over the weekend.

In the letter, the group of businesses and organizations argue that the committee's map harms the state's credibility because of processes "conducted opaquely, behind closed doors, or in ways that raise doubts or leave room for suspicion regarding motives and machinations."

That, they say, is the opposite of how the Utah Independent Redistricting Commission's maps were conducted. Those who signed the letter praised the commission for creating maps in the public's eye and without partisan data, which they believe eases concerns about credibility.

"The relentless undermining of the 2020 election has shown a worrying distrust in government at both the federal and local level," the letter read, in part. "But, Utah's leaders have a remarkable opportunity to prove to Utahns that our government is trustworthy and first and foremost serves the people by adopting the commission's maps instead of following prior legislatures' ploys of picking self-serving, secretive maps."

Jonathan Ruga, CEO of Century Financial, urges lawmakers and Gov. Spencer Cox to adopt voting maps from the state's Independent Redistricting Commission during a press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 8, 2021.
Jonathan Ruga, CEO of Century Financial, urges lawmakers and Gov. Spencer Cox to adopt voting maps from the state's Independent Redistricting Commission during a press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 8, 2021. (Photo: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

The letter doesn't list a preferred alternative to the legislative committee's map among the 12 voting maps presented by the independent commission. Sheryl Allen, a Republican former state legislator and current board member of the group Better Boundaries, said she believes everyone who signed has their own personal preference of the three maps, but that the general opinion is one of them is better than what was drawn up for by the committee.

Pushback against the proposed committee maps

The Princeton Gerrymandering Project on Monday revealed its analysis of the proposed congressional and legislative maps. It found that the map skews Republican more than equal partisan balance. The same group gave all three maps from the independent commission a favorable rating last month.

But the biggest takeaway seemed to be where the lines are on the map. While one adjustment — moving San Juan County from District 2 to District 3 — was made Monday during the committee's final meeting, the map still includes some of those details, such as splitting up Salt Lake County into all four congressional districts. Salt Lake City remains split into two districts, while Millcreek is split into parts of all four among cities in the county.

"The Legislature's draft map violates the traditional principle of keeping counties whole where possible. It splits more counties than any of the commission's maps," the group wrote.

The redistricting process does require all four districts to be divided evenly. Since about one-third of Utahns live in Salt Lake County, it was all but certain that it would be cut up in some sort of fashion during the process. But Allen believes it was purposively divided in the way it was.

"It seemed to strengthen each and every district to be won by a Republican," she said. "I am a Republican but I do believe in fair representation and I do not favor — nor have I ever — the 'pizza division' on congressional districts, where a slice of urban and a big rural (are created)."

Sheryl Allen, of Better Boundaries, urges lawmakers and Gov. Spencer Cox to adopt voting maps from the state's Independent Redistricting Commission during a press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 8, 2021.
Sheryl Allen, of Better Boundaries, urges lawmakers and Gov. Spencer Cox to adopt voting maps from the state's Independent Redistricting Commission during a press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 8, 2021. (Photo: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Nikila Venugopal, the director of campaigns for the ACLU of Utah, added: "Utahns are united in believing cities, counties and communities should be kept whole."

The letter released Monday mirrored many of the public comments left on the legislative committee's website. Nearly all comments made on the congressional maps were marked as negative, with many accusing the committee of partisan gerrymandering. Others — much like those who signed the letter Monday — suggested that the committee follow the maps presented to them by the Utah Independent Redistricting Commission.

"The committee isn't even attempting to hide their bias and intention with this map," wrote Derek Lloyd, who identified himself on the map as a resident of Salt Lake County.

Scott Young, the chief operating officer for Sentry Financial, called the maps "an assault on the very foundation of our democracy, which is designed to protect the will of the majority while not trampling on the rights of the minority."

There were some online comments in favor of the proposed map. For instance, Aaron Bullen, marked on the map as a resident near Heber City, wrote that he attempted to draw maps that didn't break up Salt Lake County.

"This map is fine," he wrote, arguing that a map in Illinois gerrymandered for Democrats was worse.

Laurel Price, identified on the map as a resident near Manti, argued that most Utah counties voted against the proposition that created the independent commission back in 2018.

"Thanks to the Utah Legislature for working to approve maps that are truly representative of the entire state of Utah. When you have 26 of the 29 counties where Prop 4 failed, it is obvious that the majority of Utah is not represented by an appointed body that has no accountability to voters," she wrote, in part.

Allen, who is a part of the group that pushed for Proposition 4, disputes that. Not only did more Utahns vote for the bill than against it, she points out that all but four representatives and one senator voted against the compromise that became the actual state law before the redistricting process began.

A final vote

While some also panned the legislative committee for its timing in releasing their proposal, Allen doesn't. She said she gives it the benefit of the doubt considering the time crunch created by 2020 census data delays. Those delays impacted both the commission and the committee.

Those who signed the letter say they hope the Legislature will vote against the committee's maps Tuesday and side with the commission. If the Legislature does approve the maps, they hope that Cox will veto it.

"The right to vote and select our politicians is a sacred constitutional right," the letter states. "We call on you, our Legislature and governor, to protect our democracy, honor the will of Utah voters and adopt the recommendations of the Independent Redistricting Commission."

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