Over the next year, redistricting is going to be a very hot issue in Utah.
With the failure of the Fair Boundaries citizens’ ballot initiative to get enough signatures to place a proposal on the ballot to create an independent Redistricting Commission, the Legislature will proceed with the process as usual.
And every detail of what lawmakers do will be scrutinized very closely by the news media, watchdog groups, and the political parties, especially Utah Democrats. You can bet the majority Republicans will make the process as transparent as possible. They will invite comments and suggestions, hold public hearings across the state, and their Redistricting Committee meetings will be open to the public.
As critics like to point out, the stakeholders with the most interest in this process are state lawmakers themselves and members of Congress, because their futures depend, in part, on how the new boundaries are drawn.
There’s no question that lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, will be looking out for their own interests to some degree, within the legal and constitutional requirements for redistricting.
But it’s also true that lawmakers know the districts better than anyone else. They know the communities of interest and the natural boundaries. And the process will be painful. There will be winners and losers. In areas where population growth has been slow, districts will need to be combined.
Where growth has been rapid over the last decade, new districts will be created with no incumbents. In northern Utah County, some current districts have populations as much as three times as large as inner-city Salt Lake City, where little growth has occurred.
In general, redistricting may not be good news for Democrats, who represent more no- or slow-growth areas than Republicans.
And despite complaints about slicing up some counties and cities into different districts, it’s absolutely impossible to keep every community intact. Legislative districts must have the same populations, so no matter how hard legislators try, overlaying 75 House districts and 29 Senate districts onto Utah’s 245 municipalities and 29 counties, varying dramatically in population and size, is an impossibility without crossing a really lot of boundaries.
Creating new legislative districts will be an exciting process, but producing four new congressional districts will be even more intense. Plenty of debate will occur about the general parameters of the districts. Should each district have urban-rural components? Should Salt Lake County be divided into all four districts? Should politics play an obvious role with the creation of a “safe” Democratic district?
Interested parties will play with a lot of maps and numbers over the next several months. If legislative leaders follow past procedures, they will lay some of the groundwork for redistricting in the 2011 session, but the final redistricting will occur in a special session later in 2011.
That will make 2012 a very exciting election year with lots of opportunities for new entrants into the political process. Some districts will have no incumbents, and the advantages of incumbency may be lessened in other districts that cover new territory with different voters.
Hang onto your hats. The politics of redistricting over the next year will be fun to watch.