Commentary: Grab some popcorn . . . the messy redistricting process will be fun to watch

Political junkies who like to watch politicians squirm are in for a treat this summer and fall as the redistricting process goes forward.

The political futures of a number of state legislators and members of Congress could be at stake as new boundaries are drawn for election districts. It’s possible that some incumbent state legislators will end up in a district with another incumbent, forcing them to run against each other, or one will have to retire.

Other incumbents will end up in districts quite different from their current districts where they have developed relationships and rapport with voters. Some may find the political makeup of their districts altered significantly.

The dynamic of having boundaries drawn by both a legislative redistricting committee and an independent redistricting commission will be new for Utah and will add to the intrigue. It’s possible boundaries recommended by the two groups will differ markedly, generating accusations of political shenanigans and gerrymandering.

Meanwhile, interested citizens will have plenty of opportunity for input. Both redistricting groups will hold public hearings across the state. In addition, an on-line platform will be made available so anyone who desires can carve up the state and submit their masterpiece to the Legislature.

Congressional redistricting will create extra intrigue because control of the U.S. House of Representatives hangs in the balance in the 2022 election. Republicans control more state legislatures than Democrats, so the GOP is hoping lines will be drawn giving Republicans an advantage.

The redistricting outcome, in part, will depend on how state legislators answer key questions. For example, should an “urban” congressional district be created, or should each district have fairly equal urban, suburban and rural components. Good arguments can be made for either approach.

Democrats will argue that Salt Lake City, West Valley City and surrounding areas constitute a “community of interest” and deserve a member of Congress to represent those interests. Republicans will counter that it’s better for each of Utah’s four members of Congress to represent urban, suburban and rural communities so that the entire delegation represents the state’s broader interests rather than a more narrow perspective.

Another question is whether incumbents should be protected, when feasible, or should the process be blind to where incumbents live. That question impacts both Republicans and Democrats, of course. In the past, most Democrats have supported redistricting legislation, even while the redistricting plan has been severely criticized good government groups. 

Those drawing lines aren’t supposed to take voting patterns into consideration, but political parties and partisan strategists will be analyzing various proposals for their political ramifications. Democrats can make the argument that more than 25 percent of the electorate votes for Democrats, so one congressional seat should be a Democratic seat.

That argument isn’t likely to win the day. Republican strategist Karl Rove points out in a Wall Street Journal column that many Democratic states have drawn boundaries to distribute Republican voters in Democratic-majority districts. In Illinois, for example, Republicans won 41% of the congressional vote in 2020, but hold only 28% of the seats. 

Utah Republican legislators aren’t likely to yield a congressional seat to the Democrats when their Democratic counterparts in other states are playing hardball. Thus, it’s probable that Democratic parts of the state will be carved into all four districts.

The reality is that it’s impossible to keep everyone happy in redistricting. It is impossible to avoid cutting up counties, cities and even neighborhoods. The one absolute requirement is that population numbers are equal among districts. That prevents keeping all towns, cities, counties and communities of interest intact.

Equal population requirements also mean that older urban neighborhoods are going to lose representation to high-growth areas that tend to be more Republican. For example, the southwest side of Salt Lake County and northern Utah County are going to end up with more state legislators. But districts in built-out areas of Salt Lake City and the east bench will have to expand, meaning those areas will end up with fewer legislators. Some districts will have to be merged into each other, so some incumbent legislators may end up in a new district with another legislator.

The legislative redistricting committee and the independent commission are waiting for final Census numbers to start seriously drawing lines. But once they get going, they’re going to be very busy. And the political intrigue will be thick.