Fasten your seatbelts: Redistricting happens this year

Redistricting occurs this year, and it always produces plenty of drama, injecting a little political fear in the hearts of incumbent members of Congress, the Legislature, and school boards.

Politicians worry: Will I end up in a district with another incumbent, either of my own party or the other party? Will my new district exclude a lot of supporters I’m tight with? Will the political makeup of my new district make me more vulnerable?

Like it or not, redistricting will be underway within a few months and legislative leaders are already preparing. In the session starting Tuesday, leaders will appoint members of a legislative redistricting committee, and a seven-member independent redistricting commission will also be created. It will work in parallel to the legislative committee, with the governor and legislative leaders from both parties appointing the seven commissioners.

Redistricting is the once-a-decade process of redrawing election district boundary lines to provide population equity in each district. It occurs after each Decennial U.S. Census, which tabulates the population numbers used in the redistricting process.

Redistricting always becomes a hot and divisive issue, with allegations of gerrymandering (drawing district boundaries to politically benefit a party or politician), and complaints about not keeping communities of interest together. It sometimes causes rifts within a political party because two incumbents may end up in the same district and have to face off in the next election.

The process will be even more interesting this year because, thanks to a citizen ballot measure promoted by a group called Better Boundaries and approved by voters, an independent redistricting commission will be established to recommend its own boundary plans. Those plans will be submitted to the Legislature for its consideration. The original ballot language passed by voters was changed in a compromise agreement to make it more amenable to the Legislature.

So, we will have a dual redistricting process. Two separate committees will be drawing lines, with the Legislature having the final say. There will be plenty of contention if the independent commission’s proposed maps differ dramatically from the Legislature’s.

House leadership has appointed veteran Rep. Paul Ray to co-chair the Legislature’s committee. Senate leadership has appointed relative newcomer (elected in 2018) Sen. Scott Sandall as the other co-chair. Both are solid, mainstream leaders. Leadership will appoint additional committee members, both Republicans and Democrats, during the session. 

The members of the independent commission must be appointed by Feb. 1. The governor will appoint the commission chair; two commissioners will be appointed by minority legislative leaders; two by majority legislative leaders; and two unaffiliated commissioners will be appointed jointly by majority and minority legislative leadership.

The committees are supposed to get Census numbers in April, but Sandall and Ray said the U.S. Census Bureau is behind schedule and it might be May or later until they have final numbers. But the software and systems to crunch the numbers are being put in place now, so the mappers will be able to quickly create maps once the numbers are in hand. The software is very sophisticated and it’s relatively easy to draw myriad map options with districts having equal populations.

Once the numbers are in the computers, the commission will seek citizen input by holding at least seven public meetings across Utah, completing the public hearings by Aug. 1. The legislative committee will also hold a number of hearings during May, June and July. These public meetings may be a hybrid of in-person and remote, allowing participation by any citizen. Both groups will talk to city and county leaders and legislators representing the various areas, to hear their concerns and recommendations.

The commission will adopt final maps no later than 20 days after the final public meeting, and will then submit them to the Legislature. No later than Sept. 1, lawmakers must hold a meeting solely to consider the commission’s maps.

Meanwhile, the Legislature will be drawing maps of its own, and considering maps proposed by members of the public.  Ray and Sandall said they expect a special legislative session will be held in the fall, likely October or November to debate and adopt new maps for congressional, legislative and state school board districts. Ray said he hopes the legislative committee and the independent commission will have a cordial and cooperative relationship. He hopes to attend commission meetings.

Those running for office in 2022 can start gathering signatures in January to get on the ballot, so they need to know their district boundaries well before that.

Local governments and local school districts will draw their own maps for their own political districts.

The redistricting committees are likely to allow anyone who wants to create their own maps to go to a web site and draw to their heart’s content. However, the software will force some mapping honesty. If you draw the perfect map for an area you’re interested in, it will impact every other district in the state. You might preserve communities of interest in your city or county, for example, while carving up other areas in ways that make no sense. It forces hard choices. Ray said the Legislature will welcome citizen-drawn maps and will consider each of them.

New districts are required to have equal populations. It is also desirable, to the extent possible, to respect traditional neighborhoods, municipal and county borders, and communities of interest. Districts should also be compact and contiguous and follow geographic features and natural barriers.

However, in reality it’s impossible to do all of those things and keep populations equal and districts compact. It simply doesn’t work. Thus, some cities and counties will be sliced up. Some upscale resort communities like Park City might end up with farming towns. A city might be carved into three or four legislative districts and one or two congressional districts. A legislator might have to cross a mountain to get to a distant part of the district. It will be impossible to keep everyone happy.

And then there are the political considerations. Lawmakers tend to be deferential to each other, but the data may not allow them to protect incumbents in every situation. Fast-growing areas of the state are going to get additional representation, and low-growth areas might lose representation. The booming areas of southwestern Salt Lake County and northern Utah County, along with Washington County, are going to get more legislative seats, while slower-growing Salt Lake City may lose a seat. 

Both Sandall and Ray said there will be no special favors, no drawing weirdly-shaped districts to protect incumbents. Ray said the numbers don’t lie, and no one will be given special treatment. They won’t look at voting patterns in proposed districts, although individual members of the Legislature and Congress can certainly do so. The existence of the independent commission may help keep everyone honest.

Still, politics will play a role, as it always does in the redistricting process. It’s especially hard to keep politics out of congressional redistricting. For example, should there be a small urban, Salt Lake City-based district, guaranteeing at least one Democratic congressional seat? Or should each district include both urban and rural areas, so each member of congress will care about both urban and rural issues?

There have been times in the past when incumbent congressmen, including Republicans, have been very angry about their new district boundaries. Protests and lawsuits are possible.

Sandall and Ray are going to be very busy for the next several months. It is always a messy process, but history shows Utah lawmakers have done a reasonable job of carving up the state into new political districts.