Summit County has a big stake in Proposition 4, but not all agree on need for redistricting reform
The ballot initiative formerly known as Better Boundaries, which will appear on Utah midterm ballots as Proposition 4 in November, could drastically change Summit County’s political situation on Capitol Hill – the one in Salt Lake City, that is.
Currently, state and congressional legislative districts in Utah are drawn up every 10 years by the Republican-controlled state Legislature. The system has drawn criticism from opponents who say it constitutes a conflict of interest. Prop 4 proposes a seven-person, bipartisan, independent commission that would draft the electoral map and send it to the Legislature for approval.
Summit County stands to potentially see a massive shift in its political boundaries if the measure succeeds. None of the three state representatives and two senators currently representing the county’s residents live within its borders. And only a small sliver of it is represented by a Democrat, House minority leader Rep. Brian S. King of Salt Lake (Summit Park and a chunk of Pinebrook are grouped in with Emigration Canyon and Salt Lake east of 1300 East in House District 28).
Better Boundaries, the organization that led the effort to get Prop 4 on the ballot, is chaired by two Republicans and two Democrats, and bipartisan advocates say it would curtail gerrymandering of Utah’s state legislative districts and, to a lesser extent, its congressional districts. At a recent town hall event in Hideout, major party candidates to represent Park City in the Legislature — Ronald Winterton, a Republican, as well as Democrats Eileen Gallagher and Meaghan Miller — indicated they support the creation of an independent redistricting commission.
Gallagher, who is running against Winterton in Senate District 26, said that district’s makeup — a sprawling area including Park City, Heber and Vernal — results in a constituency that doesn’t feel “heard” by its representatives. Much of that race’s character has been defined by the economic and cultural differences found across and between the Wasatch Back and the Uintah Basin.
Incumbent Rep. Tim Quinn, R-Heber, Miller’s opponent in House District 54, doesn’t support the initiative, saying its goal of creating a truly independent commission is undercut by the size of the proposed panel.
“In today’s political environment, everyone has a bias,” Quinn said in an interview. “I’d rather have 104 — both Republican and Democrat — biased people trying to draw boundaries … than (a few) people who have a bias.”
Opponents of the ballot measure have also said only the Democratic minority would stand to gain from its passage. The Summit County Democratic Party officially supports the proposal.
Cheryl Butler, chair of the county party, didn’t deny that a successful proposition would likely help Democrats, but said given the Republicans’ supermajority, an independent committee would help the constituencies that need it most.
“It just happens, in Utah, that rebalancing would not favor the current majority party,” Butler said.
While Summit County’s state government situation could change, Butler said the congressional picture likely wouldn’t shift as much as it would in neighboring Salt Lake County, which is split among three of Utah’s four House districts.
And even as Utah’s legislative picture isn’t shaped in the same way as Pennsylvania and North Carolina — two denser, more racially diverse states whose supreme courts found have unconstitutional electoral borders — Butler said House District 53, represented by Rep. Logan Wilde, R-Croydon, is a particularly egregious example of gerrymandering. The 53rd covers a huge area stretching to the Idaho border, including Morgan and most of the east side of Summit County, as well as a small peninsula encompassing Pinebrook, Canyons Village and half of Kimball Junction split down S .R. 224.
“Voters should choose their representatives; representatives shouldn’t be allowed to draw the lines and choose their voters,” she said.
The Summit County Republican Party does not have an official position on the measure, chair Brantley Eason said. However, his personal view is that the criteria to be a member of the commission are too exclusive and that an independent commission isn’t necessary because voters have a built-in recourse against gerrymandering.
“We hire legislators to do a job, and this is one of the jobs they’re supposed to do,” Eason said. “If we don’t like what the legislators do, we vote them out or take them to the courts.”
The GOP chair is also skeptical of the initiative’s funding, saying much of the financial support for the measure has come from interests outside of Utah. Two of the campaign’s top five donors are the Houston-based Act Now Initiative (its top contributor overall) and California-based Campaign for Democracy, while the other three are regular Utah activists Michael Weinholtz, Barbara Tanner and Bruce Bastian, according to online election database Ballotpedia.
Nearly a dozen Park City and Summit County officials sat on a public panel Wednesday to outline the way forward on wildfire management and to answer questions from residents.