Group aims to put independent redistricting commission on 2018 ballot

A Utah good government group is set to launch a ballot initiative to create a bipartisan/independent redistricting commission with the goal of putting the issue before voters in 2018. has learned that Utahns for Responsive Government are planning to unveil the proposal, which they call “Better Boundaries.” The initiative would create a seven-person advisory commission to advise Utah lawmakers when they undertake the once-a-decade task of redrawing political boundary lines in the state.

The commission would essentially have no power in drawing political boundaries as that power belongs to the legislature under the Utah Constitution. The council would act more like an ombudsman for the public in the process. However, it would be very hard for lawmakers to reject the recommendation of an independent commission because it would not be a good look for them in the court of public opinion.

The Better Boundaries proposal creates a seven-person commission, with the membership selected as follows:

– Two members would be appointed by the Majority Party leaders in the State House and Senate.
-Two members would be appointed by Minority Party Leaders of the State House and State Senate
– Two commissioners would be unaffiliated, with one selected by Majority Leadership in the Legislature and the other appointed by the Minority Leadership.
– The Commission Chair would be appointed by the Governor.

If approved by voters, the commission would be in effect for the 2021 redistricting cycle, which would come after the 2020 census.

The group behind the proposal is a bi-partisan group of politicians and political operatives, including former Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, a Democrat, and Jeff Wright, who served as the national finance director for Jon Huntsman Jr.’s presidential campaign in 2012.

A source involved with the process tells that they’re not quite ready to launch the initiative as they’re still building support, but they are confident the funding to get the required 100,000 signatures to put the issue on the ballot will be available.

“We don’t want to rip control of this process out of the legislature’s hands,” said the source. “We simply want to create good policy and restore public trust in this process.”

To that end, members of the group have been meeting with lawmakers and other stakeholders trying to build support for the commission.

If URG successfully gets the initiative on the 2018 ballot, it would likely pass. A survey from July of 2015 found 65% of Utahns want an independent commission to redraw Utah’s political boundaries every 10 years, while just 25% think the Legislature should draw those boundaries. Clearly, public opinion favors the formation of an independent commission.

That same poll found Democrats and independent voters overwhelmingly favor the creation of an independent commission to handle redistricting, while 49% of Republicans agree.

The URG proposal would require the boundaries that the commission comes up with to meet five criteria:

  1. The maps must be contiguous, meaning no breaks in the boundaries.
  2. The Districts must be as compact as possible.
  3. The maps must minimize the number of cities and counties divided among more than one district.
  4. The maps must use natural boundaries like roads and geographic barriers.
  5. They must also try to keep communities of interest and neighborhoods together.

Along with those requirements the maps that the commission comes up, there are certain things they must avoid. They can’t favor or disadvantage a person, political party or candidate. They also cannot use partisan political data like election results or where officeholders live. That means incumbent lawmakers may find themselves drawn out of their districts.

A copy of a prospectus about the proposed initiative provided to says “Everyday Utahns are losing their voice as extreme factions from each major party exercise an outsized influence in the electoral process. Politicians no longer fear losing elections and are driven to satisfy the demands of special interest groups, rather than the needs of their district.”

The prospectus also points to the 2011 Congressional redistricting as a prime example of the necessity of an independent commission, highlighting the “pizza slice” map lawmakers came up with that divided Salt Lake County into four pieces, but none of the members of Congress live in the county.

No matter what maps the commission comes up with, lawmakers could choose to ignore them because the power to draw political lines belongs to the legislature. It would take a constitutional amendment to do that. But, just having another voice with the weight of state law behind them would put pressure on lawmakers to listen.

The 2018 ballot could get crowded with many petition initiatives vying for approval from voters. On Tuesday the “Our Schools Now” group launched their proposal to use sales and income tax hikes to provide more funding for Utah’s schools, while another group plans to start a signature drive to put a medical marijuana initiative on the ballot, too.