Will independent redistricting result in more Democratic victories?

There’s a pretty good chance that an independent, unelected, redistricting commission will be drawing Utah’s political district boundaries, at least on an advisory basis, after the 2020 Census.

The big question is whether the final result will be the political nirvana that progressives are hoping for. Will this exercise result in more Democratic seats in the Legislature? Will it result in at least one Democratic congressional district?


We obviously don’t yet know the answers to those questions. But my guess is that Democrats expecting to win more seats might be disappointed.

In fairness to the backers of the Better Boundaries group promoting the Proposition 4 redistricting initiative, I take them at their word that they’re not trying to favor Democrats in the redistricting process. They’re just trying to prevent gerrymandering and create political districts without regard to politics.

The proposed law requires the redistricting commission to draw lines without regard to where incumbents live, and without regard to voting patterns or the proportion of Republicans, Democrats and independents living in a particular area. Districts are to be created with equal population, while trying to respect political jurisdiction boundaries, communities of interest and natural geography.

But there’s no question that a lot of liberals and Democrats are betting big that if Proposition 4 wins in November, as expected, it will mean more Democrats in Utah political offices.

I’m not so sure.  

For one thing, over the last 10 years, Utah’s population growth has been much faster in Republican areas of the state than in urban Democratic areas. That means Republican areas are going to increase representation, while Democratic areas lose.  

As their urban districts are expanded in size, as will be required to keep population numbers equal, Democratic incumbents will be more likely to end up in the same district as other Democrats (or Republicans). The end result is likely to be fewer Democrats in the Legislature, not more.

We’re going to see more legislators in fast-growing northern Utah County and southern Salt Lake County – where Republicans dominate.

Congressional redistricting is where it will get interesting. Again, because of rapid population growth in Republican areas, Democratic strength will be diluted. However, it can easily be argued that if the redistricting commission consolidates Democratic areas in one district, then a Democratic congressional district could be created.

But that might violate commission principles of not looking at politics in creating districts. It might require some creative gerrymandering.

It can be argued that Democratic Salt Lake City and other Democratic areas constitute a “community of interest.” An argument can also be made that Salt Lake City should not be divided into more than one district. Critics of legislative redistricting continually complain that neighborhoods, cities and counties were split up.

But it is simply impossible to create equal-population districts across the state without dividing a lot of neighborhoods, cities, counties and geographic areas. Some jurisdictions will simply have to be split. Is there something so special about Salt Lake City that it should not be split, while Republican cities are split?

All of this is quite speculative, of course, at this point. The districts will be based on the population numbers derived from the 2020 Census. We don’t know what the population numbers will be for legislative and congressional districts, although smart political data analysts can make some pretty accurate calculations. 

We also don’t know the makeup of the redistricting commission, assuming Prop 4 passes. We can assume that the Legislature will appoint a redistricting committee of its own. Lawmakers might hold hearings across the state to receive input from local citizens and leaders as it has done in past years.

Legislators might make the argument that 104 elected legislators understand communities of interest better than an unelected commission, because they live all across the state, interact with their constituents, and were elected by the people.

Lawmakers will, no doubt, be running numbers and looking at boundaries so they can be prepared to accept or reject the proposal that emerges from the redistricting commission.

It’s all going to be a great lot of fun to watch.