Historically in Utah, the state legislature draws congressional and state legislative districts, subject to a gubernatorial veto. In 2018, Utah voters passed Proposition 4 to create an advisory Independent Redistricting Commission and redistricting standards that would draw congressional and state election maps based on citizen input, which would be subject to an up or down vote by the legislature with an explanation for the vote. The initiative also bound all approved maps to the voter-centered standards created by Proposition 4. Just two years later, the Utah Legislature passed SB 200 and repealed Proposition 4, allowing the legislature to reject the commission’s maps with no explanation or reason and making the standards non-binding.
The Utah Independent Redistricting Commission took extensive public testimony and created what many hailed to be fair maps. However, the legislature adopted congressional and state legislative lines that it drew itself. The state house and senate maps secured bipartisan support; the congressional lines were approved by only Republican legislators.
Community of Interest Story
Salt Lake County includes Utah’s most populous city, Salt Lake City, and multiple townships. In a state with over 3.3 million people, Salt Lake County has one third of the state’s population, with over 1.1 million people. As the only major urban area in the state, it has unique challenges, including homelessness, water security, and transportation.
The final congressional map split Salt Lake County into four districts. While Salt Lake County’s population would have required the county to be split into two districts, the four-district split meant that each congressional district had a piece of urban Salt Lake County combined with a far-flung corner of rural Utah. There was extensive public protest over the division, including opposition from the mayor of Salt Lake County and 11 other cities.
Nevertheless, the legislature pushed through its divisive maps, which were challenged in court by the League of Women’s Voters of Utah and Mormon Women for Ethical Government, represented by Campaign Legal Center, claiming the new maps were partisan gerrymanders and that the repeal of Proposition 4 was illegal. The challenge is still pending as of August 2023.
Overall State Grade: C-
Utah was a tale of two committees – the advisory Independent Redistricting Commission and the Legislative Redistricting Committee. The grade reflected both the best of redistricting and the worst of redistricting.
The legislature ignored public input: While the Independent Redistricting Commission created an open public input process, had staff assist people to submit as many as 590 community of interest maps, and deliberated and drew the maps in public for all to see, the commission’s role was rendered toothless by the state legislature. The Utah state legislature adopted maps that completely ignored the commission’s maps and public input and protest over Salt Lake County’s split.
The maps were drawn in secret: The maps that were voted on by the legislature were drawn behind closed doors, released to the public late on a Friday night. After rushed hearings, the Legislative Redistricting Committee adopted the plans
While the final maps that were adopted by the Legislative Committee were not reflective of public input, the separate process carried out by the advisory Independent Commission drew substantial public engagement. According to Katie Wright of Better Boundaries, a Utah-based non-profit that pushed for an independent commission, the process that the advisory Independent Commission carried out “had incredible engagement of Utahns. The Independent Commission had approximately 590 maps submitted, 1,000 general comments, and 2,000 comments on specific maps.”
“The public input process carried out by the Utah Independent Advisory Redistricting Commission was exemplary in providing for citizen input. After each meeting of the commission around the state, staff and volunteers were available to help citizens draw communities of interest.” – Gigi Brandt, League of Women Voters of Utah
- Public outreach pays off: The Independent Commission encouraged community map drawing and people submitted 590 community of interest maps. The Independent Commission also held numerous public hearings to receive input, deliberated and drew lines in public, and adjusted proposed maps based on public feedback.
- The Utah Independent Redistricting Commission needs the final authority to adopt congressional and state maps: The commissioners worked across partisan lines to draw and recommend maps that were well-received by Utahns, however, leaving the final authority of map approval to the legislature still runs the risk of a partisan gerrymander and/or incumbent protection.
- Utah court review must be protected: Enshrine in the state constitution that the state courts will be the final arbiter for whether the maps meet Utah state constitutional standards.