By: Maxfield Daley-Watson
After the 2010 census, Utah gained one congressional district, giving the state a total of four federal congressional seats. In 2011, when the state drew its new legislative map, the process was conducted by the state’s Republican controlled legislature. This process resulted in the creation of three heavily conservative districts and one Republican leaning district. In 2018 voters narrowly approved Proposition 4, a ballot initiative directed at creating an independent bipartisan commission with the intention of creating fairer maps. The plan for this independent commission was then edited and eventually implemented through the passage of Senate Bill 200. As a result, SB 200 appropriated 1 million dollars for the independent redistricting commission. In a less positive move, the bill also shifted the independent commission to an advisory role with the ability to draft maps that are then voted on by the state legislature. This is possible because Utah allows the state legislature to amend any enacted statute with a simple majority vote. According to Better Boundaries, the organization behind Proposition 4, the impetus for the legislative overhaul on the redistricting commission centered around the unwillingness of state law makers to place a prohibition on partisan gerrymandering in the redistricting process. Furthermore, the Utah Constitution vests redistricting power in the hands of the legislature, which added an additional wrinkle to the implementation of Proposition 4.
While the demotion of the independent commission is not ideal for those looking to limit the role of elected officials in congressional and legislative line drawing, the formation of an independent commission remains a promising step. Only 17 states use an independent commission in any part of the redistricting process. Furthermore, research from the Brennan Center indicates that even in cases where the state legislature has some oversight in the redistricting process, an independent commission generally creates fewer gerrymandered districts than would be produced if state law makers are given complete control over state legislative and federal congressional map drawing.
Another promising aspect of Utah’s independent commission is the level of involvement the public has had in the process. The independent commission has received over 2,000 public comments regarding its maps and 250 other comments regarding redistricting issues. This demonstrates a commitment among the public to engage in the creation of their own maps with a presumed focus on eliminating partisan bias. While an official map has not been selected, almost all the maps produced by the independent commission and evaluated by the Princeton Gerrymandering project have received an A grade in terms of partisan fairness. On November 1, 2021, the independent commissions submitted several final maps, for both state and federal districts, to the Utah legislature for final review. After a brief period of review, the legislature will take a vote on whether to adopt a map from the independent commission in mid-November. Whether or not any of the maps will be accepted is up for considerable debate. This is due in large part to the fact that essentially every map that has been made available by the independent commission creates one district that would give Democrats an advantage. Republicans control the entire redistricting process in the state and all federally elected representatives are Republicans. For this reason, there is the possibility that state law makers may try and draw their own map with the intent of decreasing the advantage given to Democrats.
As one can tell by looking at the 2020 election results in Utah, any map an independent commission creates will not dramatically shift the balance of power in the state. However, the formation of Utah’s independent commission is promising because it offers one data point in an emerging trend towards more states creating their own independent redistricting commissions.