Why lawmakers may not be shy about changing the redistricting law

Three important laws were enacted by voters in the November election, and the question has been asked many times: Will the Legislature change these laws embodied in Propositions 2, 3 and 4?

We already know the answer to that question for Prop 2, the medical marijuana initiative. Lawmakers will go into special session this morning to enact a compromise agreed to by key leaders on both sides (but not by some of the hardcore activists on both sides).

We are likely to end up with a better law, enabling legitimate use of the medicinal properties of marijuana, without the law becoming a doorway to recreational marijuana.

Meanwhile, the Legislature won’t get to address Prop 3 (Medicaid expansion), or Prop 4, (creating an independent redistricting commission), until the next regular legislative session in late January. Prop 3 passed 53.32 percent to 46.68 percent. Prop 4 barely eked out a victory, 50.34 percent to 49.66 percent.

So, the voters have spoken. Will lawmakers leave these two laws alone?

Perhaps not. It might be easier to change these new laws, especially Prop 4, than most people realize. That’s because in measuring public support of these laws, legislators won’t necessarily look at the statewide vote totals, but will instead look at voting results in their own districts.

I don’t have the vote totals in each legislative district for the two new laws. But I’d be willing to bet that Prop 4, the redistricting law, lost in a majority of both House and Senate districts.  

Prop 4 lost in every county in Utah except Salt Lake, Carbon, Grand and Summit. It won big in Salt Lake County, 232,453 votes to 165,945. But that means it lost big in most of the rest of the state. And a majority of House and Senate districts are outside of Salt Lake County.

Besides that, a few strongly Republican districts in the southwest part of Salt Lake County may also have voted against Prop 4, while voting precincts in the heavily Democratic districts voted strongly in favor, with above 80 percent support in some cases.

So, it’s going to be easy for a majority of the Republican Legislature to say, “Well, yes, Prop 4 barely passed statewide, thanks to overwhelming support by Democratic voters in liberal Salt Lake City districts. But it lost in my district and it lost in most districts across the state. So I will have no reluctance to change it.” 

The reality is probably different for Prop 3, the Medicaid expansion proposal. It did better than Prop 4 statewide, winning in nine of Utah’s 29 counties, including three large counties – Salt Lake, Weber and Davis. The margins were narrow in Davis and Weber, while Salt Lake County voted strongly for the proposition. It lost in Utah County by some 20,000 votes.

Again, I don’t have access to vote totals in each of the legislative districts, but I’m guessing that by winning three large counties, Prop 3 won in a majority of legislative districts. But it was probably quite close. 

But it’s clear that winning statewide doesn’t mean winning in a majority of legislative districts. In deciding whether to try to change Props 3 and 4, lawmakers will likely look at the voting results in their own districts, not at the statewide numbers.