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Despite cries of 'cracking' communities, Utah lawmakers select own maps over independent ones

People raise their hands to signify they agree with
what speakers are saying during a Legislative Redistricting
Committee at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday.

People raise their hands to signify they agree with what speakers are saying during a Legislative Redistricting Committee at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday. (Deseret News)


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Estimated read time: 8-9 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — A GOP-controlled panel of Utah lawmakers on Monday evening put its stamp of approval on a set of maps that are now poised to solidify the state's political districts for the next 10 years.

Now those maps — drawn by Republican lawmakers in a way that breaks up many of the state's urban, more liberal communities — are headed to a vote in front of the full Utah Legislature, set to convene in a special session in less than 24 hours, Tuesday morning.

The maps are nearly identical to the same set that drew an angry crowd of about 150 Utahns to the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City to tell the Legislative Redistricting Committee to instead adopt the Independent Redistricting Commission's maps, which met nationally accepted criteria for laying out data-based and politically unbiased voting districts.

An overwhelming majority of them called the legislative committee's map proposals cases of blatant gerrymandering. But the Legislative Redistricting Committee plowed ahead. The committee voted along party lines — Republicans outnumbering Democrats — to approve congressional maps and forward them to the full Utah Legislature.

The committee's Democrats, however, voted alongside Republicans to approve the other three maps for the state House and Senate and the school board districts.

House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, posted on Twitter that the Congressional map "surgically" cut Salt Lake County "solely to maximize the likelihood of Republicans winning elections" so it's "not something I will support."

However, King said the legislative committee "worked together" to draft the other maps. "They are not perfect ... But at least they had Utah legislator input."

People raise their hands to signify they agree with
what speakers are saying during a Legislative Redistricting
Committee at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 8,
2021.
People raise their hands to signify they agree with what speakers are saying during a Legislative Redistricting Committee at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 8, 2021. (Photo: Deseret News)

Ahead of the vote to approve the most high-profile congressional map, the committee's House chairman, Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, called its boundaries "a good balance of urban-rural mix." His fellow Republican colleagues agreed, while Democratic lawmakers tried but failed to muster the votes to stop the approval of a map that would split many of their own communities into multiple congressional districts.

That's even though some Utahns who share the political party of Utah's Republican supermajority Legislature urged lawmakers not to adopt a map that splits Utah's most populous county of Salt Lake County four ways, the Democratic stronghold of Salt Lake City two ways (including a new split down its east side), and other Democratic-leaning areas like Sugar House, Millcreek, Murray and Holladay into four congressional districts.

Other burgeoning Democratic areas like Sandy and Draper would be grouped into the same congressional district as conservative Utah County cities including Provo and Orem.

The only tweak the legislative committee made to the congressional map that lawmakers unveiled to the public late Friday night was moving southern Utah's San Juan County into the 3rd Congressional District.

'Splitting communities silences voices'

Chris Null, chairman of the Salt Lake County Republican Party, supported the legislative committee's proposed maps, telling lawmakers, "You have done your job."

"You're drawing the lines along natural and common sense lines," Null said. "I want to thank you for not making this a partisan effort."

That comment drew loud groans from the crowd.

Ahead of the committee's vote on the congressional map, a flurry of public comments went on for about three hours. Not allowed to cheer or applaud under the committee's decorum, members of the audience raised their hands to show their support. For hours, hands flew up in the air from the audience at comments urging lawmakers not to divide neighborhoods — many seeing it as an intentional effort to dilute urban neighborhoods with rural Utah.

Many argued lawmakers' strategy to mix rural and urban communities while drawing Utah's new congressional district boundaries was flawed and harmful.

"Splitting communities silences their voices," said one woman, who said she's a Republican who lives in downtown Salt Lake City.

"This gerrymander is technically legal, but it's morally wrong," Paul Hepworth of South Jordan said. "You are harming neighborhoods."

"This proposal dilutes the voices of both the urban and rural residents," Salt Lake City Councilman Dan Dugan said.

"Please," one man from the Salt Lake City west-side community of Rose Park urged lawmakers, "listen to the independent commission's recommendations and stop playing politics."

Another woman who said she attended former Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz's "infamous" 2018 town hall meeting — when a furious crowd jeered and shouted at Chaffetz in the midst of former President Donald Trump's tenure — called that town hall "life-changing."

"It was life-changing because I realized that gerrymandering is not just a bad idea," she said. "It's dangerous. At that meeting, it felt dangerous."

"I realized a representative can't possibly represent both of these groups," she said.

She added the 2018 Better Boundaries ballot proposition that was narrowly approved by voters to create the Independent Redistricting Commission gave lawmakers a "chance" to set up a more representative system and quell pent-up frustration of Utahns who have felt they have not had a voice for the past 10 years. (The Utah Legislature later struck a deal with Better Boundaries backers, designating the Utah Independent Redistricting Commission as only an adviser to state lawmakers, who will ultimately decide what maps get approved).

It's that pent-up frustration, others argued, that is feeding the nation's increasing political polarization.

"How does it ever recover from being as polarized as it is?" one woman said. "The thing you're doing right now is contributing to the polarization. You're hurting our democracy."

Lynette Wendel expresses her opinion on redistricting
maps during a Legislative Redistricting Committee at the Capitol in
Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 8, 2021.
Lynette Wendel expresses her opinion on redistricting maps during a Legislative Redistricting Committee at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 8, 2021. (Photo: Deseret News)

After the Legislative Redistricting Committee voted one by one to approve the congressional, state House and Senate, and school board redistricting maps, Katie Wright, executive director of Better Boundaries, expressed her disappointment in the committee.

Specifically, Wright called the House map a "heavily partisan, gerrymandered map," and she said lawmakers have made it clear that "protecting incumbents" was more important to them than keeping communities together.

"This is not what we negotiated when we came to an agreement," Wright said. "We sat at the table, and it is now being disregarded. I feel uncomfortable with that, and I think you should too."

Reaction in and out of Utah

None of the frustrated comments appeared to resonate with the Republican members of the Legislative Redistricting Committee, who voted in favor of the congressional map.

At one point, the committee's Senate chairman, Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, pushed back against criticism of the legislative committee's maps, saying the Princeton Gerrymandering Project gave them an "A." That drew boos from the crowd.

"They retracted it!" one person cried out.

The Princeton Gerrymandering Project, a group with a stated goal to conduct nonpartisan analysis to "eliminate partisan gerrymandering at a state-by-state level across the U.S," issued an open memo on Monday that explained a deeper analysis of Utah's Legislative Redistricting Committee's maps, as well as the maps recommended by the Independent Redistricting Commission. The memo explains "why a report card is not enough" when evaluating Utah's maps.

"We discovered that public reaction to our 'report cards' tended to obscure important details of competition and community," the Princeton Gerrymandering Project memo stated.

The memo went on to describe how the "treatment of Salt Lake City and its communities of interest has a significant influence on partisan competitiveness, preservation of geographic boundaries, and ultimately, fair representation." The legislative committee's maps, the memo states, "violates traditional principles of compactness" and the "'cracking' of Salt Lake City eliminates political competition and divides a major community."

In the hours leading up to Wednesday's legislative hearing, prominent Utah businesses leaders and community members held a press conference at the Utah Capitol to release a letter urging lawmakers and Gov. Spencer Cox to adopt the independent commission's recommended maps and not the legislative committee's maps.

Former independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin, who recently launched a bid against Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee, signed on to the letter. So did over 60 others, including Scott Anderson, president and CEO of Zions Bank, Kem C. Gardner of Gardner Companies, and former Salt Lake City mayors Jackie Biskupski, Ralph Becker and Rocky Anderson.

The letter harkens back to the 2018 voter-approved proposition that created the bipartisan Independent Redistricting Commission and tasked it with establishing a fair, balanced and transparent process to draw Utah's next set of political boundaries for the next 10 years.

"Past legislatures have used the redistricting process to secure positions for themselves or to ensure re-election of incumbents. Utah voters have made clear they are tired of redistricting being used for such political gamesmanship," the letter states.

The letter warned "Utahns are watching for the self-serving backroom politics of prior redistricting cycles. We ask lawmakers and Governor Cox to instead respect the will of the people by adopting the fair, balanced, and transparent recommendations of the commission."

The letter cites 2020 research from the Utah Foundation that found "politicians not listening to voters ranked as a top problem in the minds of Utah voters," with two-thirds saying they agree "elected officials are paying too little attention to voters in favor of corporations, the well-connected, or special interest groups."

"The relentless undermining of the 2020 election has shown a worrying distrust in government at both the federal and local level. 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," the letter states.

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Katie McKellar

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