Commentary: Dems might suffer if redistricting is blind to where incumbents live

With census data available and both of Utah’s redistricting committees holding meetings and soliciting public input, the controversial task of drawing political boundaries is going to heat up quickly.

Democrats are already trying to frame the issue, demanding that the Legislature’s Redistricting Committee adopt the plan recommended by the independent Redistricting Commission, without regard to where incumbents live. They’re also saying that Republicans engaged in partisan gerrymandering in previous decennial redistricting plans.

However, if the Legislature adopts legislative boundaries completely blind to where incumbents live, that could hurt Democrats more than Republicans. That’s because most of the state’s high-growth areas, like southwestern Salt Lake County and northern Utah County, are Republican-dominated, while many of the slow-growth areas are represented by Democrats.

Thus, when new equal-population districts are created, the Democratic areas are going to lose representation, while Republican areas will gain more representatives and senators. That means in the older slow-growth areas of Salt Lake City and County, two Democratic legislators could easily end up in the same district, or in a district with an incumbent Republican.

Democratic lawmakers who don’t want to retire or have to battle another incumbent, may end up hoping lawmakers do engage in some incumbent protection. 

The big fight in drawing congressional boundaries will be whether to create one obvious Democratic district with three strong Republican districts, or whether to create districts that are more proportionally balanced politically (which would favor Republicans).

Some Democrats argue that because Democrats routinely win at least 30-40 percent of the statewide vote in Utah, they ought to have at least one of Utah’s four congressional districts.

Of course, those drawing the boundaries, both in the legislative committee and the independent commission, won’t discuss this issue in such starkly political terms. Instead, Democrats will argue that Salt Lake City and adjoining highly-urban areas constitute a community of interest and deserve a member of Congress.

Republicans will suggest that creating a tiny doughnut-hole district doesn’t make sense and Utah will be better represented with four districts that each contain urban and rural parts of the state.

Adding to the intrigue, each city, county and community of interest will demand that they remain as intact as possible and not be sliced up. However, those charged with adopting new districts don’t enjoy that luxury.  Keeping House, Senate, state school board and congressional districts equal in population means lines will have to be drawn at inconvenient locations. It’s inevitable. Not every community of interest can be kept intact.      

It’s all going to come to a head pretty quickly. With new mapping and data technologies, it doesn’t take long to draw boundaries. Lawmakers will hold a special session in the fall to adopt new districts, giving candidates sufficient time to get their 2022 campaigns going in their new districts. 

Ultimately, redistricting is a political process and it’s nearly impossible to take politics out of it.