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SALT LAKE CITY — New redistricting maps that largely ignore the recommendations of a voter-approved commission in Utah are sparking a backlash and highlighting the challenges that independent panels face in an era of deep political divisions and surging gerrymandering.
Several states created independent commissions for the once-a-decade process in hopes the members could work together to draw new voting districts free of partisan gerrymandering. In practice, however, commissions in Virginia and New York have splintered along partisan lines. In Ohio, the majority Republicans passed state legislative maps over Democratic objections.
In Utah, lawmakers were under no obligation to use commission-created maps, and they didn't. Instead, they drew and approved their own maps in the span of less than a week, creating U.S. House districts that further carve up Democratic-leaning Salt Lake County to make the state's only swing district more reliably Republican.
Republican Gov. Spencer Cox gave his approval to the new maps Friday afternoon by signing the bill from the Legislature.
The process generated protests, hundreds of angry comments at public hearings and led supporters of the independent redistricting process to create a new political committee.
"When you rig districts to dilute the voice of voters or protect lawmakers from accountability, then you have a fundamental challenge with the whole system of democracy," said Katie Wright, executive director of the group Better Boundaries, which campaigned for the 2018 ballot proposal that created the commission.
Utah's seven-member commission, appointed primarily by Republican and Democratic legislative leaders, included three former lawmakers, two former judges and a local government employee with expertise in geographic information systems. Cox appointed a professor of public management as the chair. The panel held more than a dozen public hearings before releasing its recommended maps.
But the panel was not without controversy. Former U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, a Republican, abruptly resigned from the commission just days before it wrapped up its work, complaining the group was "metro-centric" and its congressional map favored Democrats.
When you rig districts to dilute the voice of voters or protect lawmakers from accountability, then you have a fundamental challenge with the whole system of democracy.
–Katie Wright, Better Boundaries Utah
Republican state lawmakers said their maps better reflect the entire state by including both rural and urban voters in districts. They also noted that the state constitution gives them the power to draw voting maps, and said they are better suited to the task as elected officials than the panel of appointees.
"Your voice is embodied in those that you elect on a local basis," said GOP Sen. Scott Sandall, who helped draw the Legislature's maps. "Those 104 legislators that they have elected come here to debate that in our republic system of government, and their voice is represented through that."
Utah is conservative overall, but in recent years a more-progressive approach has made inroads as voters passed ballot initiatives on issues such as medical marijuana and Medicaid expansion. Though all four of its congressional districts are currently held by Republicans, one of those districts has historically flipped between Republicans and Democrats. The revamped boundaries bolster Republican chances, drawing the ire of Democrats.
Opponents have vowed the fight isn't over. Better Boundaries has formed a new political action committee to target lawmakers who voted for the maps.
Voters generally perceive redistricting to be fairer when done by independent commissions than when lawmakers draw their own maps, according to recent research by the University of Southern California.
But the key is creating commissions that are truly independent — not comprised of politicians or merely advisory to the legislature, said Christian Grose, a USC political scientist involved in the research.
"The truly independent commissions seem to be working so far. It's the other ones where the questions are coming up," Grose said.
Some commissions — such as those in Arizona, California, Colorado and Michigan — consist solely of citizens who hold the final say on what maps to enact. By contrast, the commissions in Ohio and Virginia include politicians among their members. Those in New York and Virginia are like Utah in being required to submit their maps to legislators for final approval.
Even if an independent commission produces districts similar to those that would have been drawn by a legislature, voters tend to prefer the independent process, Grose said.
"If a legislature is basically canceling advice, voters probably are not going to like that," Grose said.