November 03, 2021

Voter-approved independent commission and legislative committee to create competing redistricting maps

Photo by Jaxon Lott on Unsplash
Photo by Jaxon Lott on Unsplash|||| Photo by Jaxon Lott on Unsplash|||| ||||
By Angie Eliason and Rob Ware

Every 10 years, a national process of census and legislative redistricting takes place. During redistricting, new boundaries for congressional and state legislative districts are drawn. This process determines the amount of Congressional seats a state is appointed, how resources are allocated, and helps state representatives make more informed decisions that reflect the needs of the districts they serve.

Utah’s legislature typically oversees state redistricting, but 2021’s redistricting process is more complicated. Two separate bodies, an independent commission and a committee of state legislators, will be creating redistricting maps, with the legislature free to select maps from either.

The complication began in 2018, when Utah voters approved Proposition 4, which authorized the formation of the Utah Independent Redistricting Commission (UIRC) to create state legislative district maps outside of a partisan framework. The commissioners are appointed by the state government leaders, but there are restrictions in place to prevent partisanship and promote transparency.

“The commission will be doing all the mapping live online and the public can watch and listen to the process and provide feedback,” said Aly. Escobar, Administrative Coordinator for the UIRC. “For the first time in the history of Utah, the people have more accessibility to voice their opinion regarding who they want to represent them.”

That sentiment is echoed by Representative Sandra Hollins, Democrat of District 23, who explained that “the ultimate purpose of redistricting is to make sure that people are represented fairly. We shouldn’t be choosing our constituents, they should be choosing us.” With its insistence on nonpartisanship, Prop. 4 was designed to ensure that was the case.

According to Prop. 4, anyone who was a candidate or elected official, a lobbyist, or who received compensation from a political party, committee, or PAC within the previous four years could not serve on the commission. Two of the seven commission positions are also restricted to persons with no political affiliation.

The UIRC is tasked with collecting data and feedback from community members through public hearings and direct communication. In addition to attending community meetings, members of the community are able to conveniently submit comments, propose maps, and find information about the redistricting process online at redistricting.utah.gov.

The commission’s original role was to produce maps that reflect what they learned and observed in the community, presenting these maps to the legislature for consideration. The legislature was then free to accept or reject those maps, but any replacement maps from the legislature would be required to reflect the independent commission’s nonpartisan considerations.

In 2020, the state legislature passed Senate Bill 200, which effectively made the UIRC advisory and allowed the legislature to create its own redistricting committee, which Rep. Hollins is a part of. The legislature’s committee will create and propose its own maps, which will be presented to the legislature in addition to the UIRC’s maps. This change prompted some community members to worry that the process may simply be politics as usual, regardless of Prop. 4’s intent.

“When prop 4 passed, the legislature had the chance to accept the will of the people,” said Richard Jarmillo, President of the Utah Coalition of La Raza. Jaramillo worries that, by making the UIRC advisory in nature, the legislature has given itself the power to ignore the nonpartisan recommendations, imposing instead “their own maps that they have drawn and have been drawing the whole time.”

According to the UIRC’s Escobar, “explosive population growth on the west side of Salt Lake County has created the need for more representation,” including on Salt Lake’s Westside. She hopes this will lead to more persons of color in elected office at local, state, and federal levels, potentially increasing the political power of historically underrepresented – yet consistently growing – demographics on the Westside.

Conversely, Jaramillo worries that ignoring the UIRC’s nonpartisan recommendations may reduce representation for Salt Lake’s Westside: “When you divide communities, you dilute their voices.” He does see value in the UIRC’s work to incorporate voices from the Westside’s minority populations as well as the communities as a whole, noting that “everything from start to finish shows a serious and authentic consideration for our communities,” and he hopes to see maps that align with the intent of the UIRC’s.

The UIRC comprises seven members appointed by the governor’s office and state legislative leadership. It includes legal experts, civil servants, retired politicians, a retired Court of Appeals judge, and a former Chief Justice of Utah’s Supreme Court. It’s chaired by Rex L. Facer II, Associate Professor of Public Management in the George Romney Institute of Public Service and Ethics at Brigham Young University’s Marriott School of Business.

The legislature’s redistricting committee comprises 20 senators and representatives (15 Republicans and 5 Democrats), including Rep. Hollins, who represents part of Salt Lake’s Westside in District 23.

Published in Fall 2021