A majority of Utahns think the authority to draw political boundaries should be taken out of the hands of the Utah Legislature and given to an independent commission.
Last month the United States Supreme Court ruled on an Arizona case where citizens took the power of redistricting away from the Legislature in an attempt to reduce the effects of partisan gerrymandering. The legislature filed suit, claiming that voters did not have the power to take that authority away from them. The high court ruled 5-4 in favor of the independent commission.
About 2/3rds of Utahns (65%) say an independent commission should tackle the once-a-decade job of redrawing lines for Utah's four Congressional districts. A quarter think that that authority should remain in the hands of lawmakers. 10% say they don't know.
Partisan gerrymandering of Utah's congressional lines has been the subject of much criticism. In 2001, the Republican-controlled legislature drew then Rep. Jim Matheson's 2nd Congressional District lines in such a way that it mixed urban voting areas with 14 rural counties. The intent? To make it nearly impossible for Matheson (or any other Democrats) to win the seat. The scheme was highlighted by the Wall Street Journal as one of the worst examples of gerrymandering in the country that year. Matheson, with hard work, a succession of terrible Republican opponents and a little luck was able to win re-election again and again, despite Republican efforts.
In 2011, Matheson's 2nd District was again drawn in such a way that it seemed like a near impossibility for him to hang on to the seat. Matheson shocked everyone by announcing he would run for the newly-created 4th Congressional District which he barely won over Mia Love. Matheson retired from Congress, and Love won the seat (barely) in 2014.
Even though the partisan gerrymandering has mostly benefited Republicans in Utah, only 39% of Republicans think Congressional redistricting should remain in the hands of lawmakers. 49% of Republicans, 88% of Democrats and 77% of independent voters say it would be better to turn redistricting over to an independent commission.
Broken down along ideological lines, the further to the left we get, the more support we find for an independent commission.
- Among those who describe themselves as "very conservative," 48% say they want an independent commission while 41% want the legislature to keep control.
- A majority of Utahns who say they are "somewhat conservative" (58%) prefer the independent commission.
- "Moderate" Utahs support an independent commission by a 74-15% margin.
- 85% of those who say they're "somewhat liberal" are partial to taking the authority to draw Congressional districts out of the Legislature's hands.
- It's not even close when you get to Utah's "very liberal" residents, who want the independent commission by a stunning 96-2% tally.
A 2012 study by Fair Vote concluded partisan redistricting of Congressional districts made Congress even more polarized. After the 2010 redistricting cycle, they found only 74 of 435 Congressional districts were a toss-up, even though the partisan makeup of the electorate is nearly evenly divided between Republican and Democrat. According to their study, 83% of the congressional districts clearly favor either Republicans or Democrats.
It would be no small order for Utah to switch to an independent commission. The power to draw districts is given to the Legislature through the state Constitution (Article IX, Section 1). That means it would take a Constitutional amendment to make that change. Since Utah lawmakers are notoriously loath to give up their power, that would probably necessitate a citizen's petition drive to make the change. Given the difficulty of gathering enough signatures to put such an initiative on the ballot (a bar set ridiculously high by Utah lawmakers), there are just two words I would use to describe the possibility of an independent commission to draw Utah's congressional districts: "fat" and "chance."
The survey was conducted for UtahPolicy.com by Dan Jones & Associates. 610 Utah residents were contacted via telephone and online means. It has a margin of error of +/- 3.97%.