A poison pill is hidden inside Utah’s “anti-gerrymandering” Proposition 4 on the November ballot.
Tucked among the popular provisions like an independent commission to draw boundaries of congressional, legislative and school districts is an explicit guarantee that partisan interests MUST be given priority.
Despite false claims that Proposition 4 will outlaw political gerrymandering, its text requires that partisan political data will be used to assure “partisan symmetry” in drawing boundaries.
Instead of ending gerrymandering, it requires a different form of gerrymandering, except now it must benefit the minority party instead of the majority party.
When sponsors claim that partisan considerations are banned by Proposition 4 they omit the all-important clause they snuck in, which says, “except as permitted under Subsection (4),” which requires “partisan symmetry.” This is designated as a new binding requirement for lines drawn by the legislature as well as lines drawn by the new commission.
The proposal never tells voters the meaning of “partisan symmetry.” It is a controversial proposed standard which the U.S. Supreme Court this summer unanimously refused to consider. As the Court wrote in Gill v. Whitford, partisan symmetry does “not address the effect that a gerrymander has on the votes of particular citizens,” but instead “measure[s] something else entirely: the effect that a gerrymander has on the fortunes of political parties.” The justices’ 9-0 ruling added, “But this Court is not responsible for vindicating generalized partisan preferences.”
Do Utahns want to require partisan symmetry, which creates new gerrymandering designed to guarantee seats to a political party? In 2016, Republican candidates for Utah’s four Congressional seats received 710,635 votes (63.78%); Democrat candidates received 356,287 votes (31.98%). Imposing Proposition 4’s partisan symmetry requirement would mean re-drawing lines so that at least one of Utah’s four seats in Congress favored Democrats.
In contested races for the Utah’s state legislature (House), Republicans received 441,850 votes (62.4%), Democrats 243,625 (34.4%) and others 12,234 (1.7%). To create new partisan symmetry boundaries, the lines by law would have to be gerrymandered so that Utah Democrats would probably win 25 (one-third) of the 75 seats instead of the 13 they hold now.
For Utah’s state senate, in 2016 Republicans received 301,303 (68.9%) of the votes in contested races, Democrats received 123,078 (28.1%) and others 12,866 (2.9%). 24 of the 29 seats were won by Republicans. A partisan symmetry makeover would mean new gerrymandered lines to help Democrats win 8 state senate seats instead of their current 5.
That is how Proposition 4 does not end gerrymandering; instead it mandates gerrymandering.
Advocates promote other parts of their proposal but carefully avoid mentioning the poison pill of compulsory partisan symmetry. The other criteria for drawing boundaries are good, such as keeping municipalities and counties united, making districts as compact as possible, following geographic features, etc. I followed those benchmarks in 2000 when I personally designed the new boundaries of Oklahoma’s congressional districts. Legislators and the governor had failed to agree on a map, so the decision was left to the courts. From all the competing maps that were proposed, the court selected and implemented mine as being the most fair.
From personal experience in designing fair redistricting, I know that creating a new requirement of partisan symmetry will guarantee gerrymandering instead of ending it. Everything else aside, this poison pill is why Proposition 4 is not only bad but is also being sold under false pretenses.
Former U.S. Congressman Ernest Istook teaches political science at Utah Valley University.