Op-Ed: The turn of the decade brings political redistricting. It’s not as simple as it sounds

Written by: Peter Reichard

It’s a new decade, and that means it will soon be time to play everyone’s favorite political game, redistricting. This time, however, it comes with a new player in Utah: a redistricting commission armed with a set of principles for redistricting. The commission and principles come compliments of a citizen referendum approved in 2018, with legislative changes in 2020.

The recently approved legislation calls for the creation of a seven-member redistricting commission to draft and recommend to the Utah Legislature maps for congressional, state legislative and school board districts according to four exacting criteria: equal population between districts; single-member districts; making districts that are contiguous and allow for ease of transport throughout the district; and making districts geographically compact. There are six additional criteria to be implemented to the extent practical: preserving traditional neighborhoods and local communities of interest; following natural and man-made boundaries, barriers and features; preserving the core of prior districts; minimizing divisions of municipalities and counties across multiple districts; maximizing the agreement of boundaries between different types of districts; and prohibiting the purposeful favoring or disfavoring of potential candidates or parties.

Post-census redistricting will apply to both houses of the Utah Legislature, the State School Board and the four congressional districts. Addressing Utah’s congressional districts is the item most likely to attract public attention. It also poses significant challenges for the criteria above.

The first basic challenge pertains to Salt Lake County. Though small in square mileage compared to most other Utah counties, Salt Lake has by far the largest population, claiming one-third of the state’s population. When it comes to congressional redistricting, with four seats in Utah, it will be split among two, three or even four districts. The county is currently split among districts 2, 3 and 4, with the 1st Congressional District running along its eastern border. Not only is splitting up Salt Lake County a necessity, it also allows the county to serve almost as a sort of sacrificial lamb for ensuring that divisions of other counties across the state are minimized.

As a result, however, the criterion of preserving communities of interest in Salt Lake County may suffer, and making districts geographically compact and contiguous is also tough. Currently, you can live in Salt Lake City or Kanab and be in the 2nd Congressional District. You can live in Holladay or the Four Corners area of San Juan County and be in the 3rd District. The quickest way from Garden City to Vernal is through Wyoming, though both are in the 1st Congressional District.

In the future, crafting compact and contiguous congressional districts might not be straightforward in all cases. For instance, is compactness optimized when there are two geographically small districts (like Salt Lake and Utah counties), one medium-size district (northern Utah), and one rather large district made up of the remaining 20 counties? Or is compactness optimized when districts cover approximately similar geographic area? As to contiguity, districts may be contiguous only by a thin stretch, or two areas might be contiguous but separated by mountains or large bodies of water.

To help better engage citizens in the challenge of redistricting, Utah Foundation has created a shareable, online tool where Utahns can try their own hands at it. You can find the tool at utahfoundation.org/redistricting. There, you’ll also find Utah Foundation’s new brief on the subject: Lines in the Sand: A Primer on Redistricting in Utah.


Originally published in the Deseret News on April 3, 2020: https://www.deseret.com/opinion/2020/4/3/21201848/political-redistricting-utah-legislature-gerrymandering

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