Bob Bernick’s notebook: Better Boundaries vs. GOP lawmakers

Arguments are starting to be made by Utah Republican leaders against the Better Boundaries citizen initiative petition, which will be on November’s ballot.

The petition, seen here, if approved by voters, would set up a bipartisan, appointed, citizen commission that would study and recommend to the Legislature changes in U.S. House and legislative districts following the 2020 Census.

The Legislature would have to vote the recommendation up or down, and if voted down have to state how the guidance FAILED in following the new law’s restrictions on boundary redrawing.

The Utah Constitution gives the authority to redistrict to the state Legislature.

Citizens, through initiatives, can’t change the Constitution. Only legislators can do that via two-thirds votes in the House and Senate, with voter approval in a general election.

The Legislature – controlled by Republicans since the late 1970s – will never propose an amendment that takes away its power to redistrict.

Currently, redistricting incumbent legislators get to choose their voters – not the other way around, voters choosing their legislators.

It is one of the greatest conflicts of interest in our current governmental system.

Many other states have moved, in one way or another, to restrict the power of lawmakers to gerrymander their districts, to the benefit of one political party or the other.

In Utah, that means the Republicans.

And so we see GOP leaders – like Senate President Wayne Niederhauser (an otherwise good guy) coming out against the Better Boundaries initiative.

Watch for other Republican leaders to join in as we get nearer the November election.

Basically, the complaints against Better Boundaries fall into two categories:

— Redistricting is, by the Constitution, a political act. And it is better to have elected representatives do it, because they can be voted out of office later by constituents if they do a really bad job.

— Better Boundaries is actually a front organization for Utah Democrats, who seek, via the bipartisan commission, to gain greater political strength than their meager, minority numbers would otherwise call for.

Both claims are, in my opinion, false.

While redistricting is a political act, I’m not aware of ANY case where a Utah legislator, re: Republican, lost his seat because of the Legislature’s really bad redistricting.

In reality, it doesn’t happen.

Now, GOP lawmakers can argue that since that has never happened, voters must approve of the Legislature’s redistricting every 10 years – so all is good.

But all is not good.

Especially in Utah U.S. House districts, there has been gerrymandering to greatly favor Republicans.

Salt Lake City, for example, a Democratic stronghold, has not been kept whole in any U.S. House redistricting in generations.

Currently, the northwestern part of the city is represented by GOP Rep. Chris Stewart – who in elections to his 2nd District sees that part of the city vote against him overwhelmingly.

In fact, in Salt Lake County’s 2nd District numbers, Stewart lost to his Democratic opponent by 26,400 votes, while he beat her 61-34 percent district-wide.

It is a fact: Those folks in northwestern Salt Lake County ARE NOT really represented by Stewart – an arch-conservative whose home base is Davis County.

Across the nation, regular old citizens are tired of such gerrymandering and unfair elections. They are demanding better.

While it is true that several major sponsors of Better Boundaries are well-known Democrats, there are also Republicans who back the initiative.

The latest Dan Jones & Associates poll on Better Boundaries finds that among all Utahns, 55 percent support it, only 20 percent oppose it, and 26 percent don’t know.

Even among Republicans, 49 percent support it, 24 percent oppose it, and 27 percent don’t know.

Clearly, GOP leaders will try to swing Republicans to their side of the issue – and oppose Better Boundaries at the polls.

But with such a huge conflict of interest – the Republican Legislature picking their own voters – I find ANY GOP leader who opposes Better Boundaries to be making a cynical argument.

Why not pick political boundaries based on local government boundaries, common values, and geographic barriers?

Why not take a bare-knuckle political interest, even self-interest, out of the equation?

The reality is no matter how you slice up state House and Senate districts, the Republicans will still be in legislative control – likely with super-majorities like they hold today.

The bipartisan commission – where Republicans would still outnumber Democrats – may indeed end up making Democratic Salt Lake City the home base of one U.S. House seat out of four in Utah.

But even if that happened, it is not the end of the world in Utah politics – it would just be giving 200,000 or so city residents the representation they rightly deserve – not stuck with some old white Mormon Republican guy they don’t want.

(I can almost hear Stewart complaining: “Hey, I’m not old.”)

It would be nice if GOP Utah leaders took a step back and thought about what is best for the average Utah voter/citizen, not what is best for the average Republican Utah legislator.