Summit County pols hope for fair maps from new redistricting commission, though Dems say ‘We’ll see’

Local Republican chair ‘as confident as I can be’ in a fair result

Five lawmakers currently represent parts of Summit County at the Statehouse, with the county split among three House districts and two Senate districts. State officials are beginning the once-in-a-decade redistricting process, and for the first time, an independent commission will recommend congressional and legislative maps to the Legislature.
Graphic by Ben Olson/Park Record

Each district in the Utah House of Representatives would contain about 42,750 people if the state’s population were split equally. That’s almost the exact population of Summit County — but instead of having one House representative, the county has three.

And depending on who you ask, three representatives aren’t necessarily better than one.

“It actually makes it really hard for (city or county officials) as the elected representatives to go and lobby their members,” said Noah Rosenberg, the acting executive director for Better Boundaries, the nonprofit that worked to create Utah’s new independent redistricting commission.

Rosenberg was speaking generally about the effects of splitting cities and counties among multiple districts, explaining that it can be harder for those areas to have influence at the statehouse when they contain only a small portion of a statewide official’s electorate.

One of the independent commission’s goals is to keep cities and counties intact as much as practicable while it is redrawing Utah’s congressional and legislative maps this year.

Utah, along with every other U.S. state, is redrawing its congressional and legislative maps using data from the 2020 census, a process that happens once every 10 years.

The commission is tasked with proposing new boundaries, while the Legislature has final say over the maps that will ultimately be used for the next decade.

Local party leaders say they are hopeful the commission will deliver a fair set of maps to legislators for approval, though Summit County Democratic Party Chair Meredith Reed was more tempered than her Republican counterpart in her praise for the new redistricting process.

“I think it looks good on paper,” Reed said. “We’ll see what the reality of that is.”

Summit County Republican Party Chair Michael Smith, meanwhile, said he was “as confident as I can be that the result will be as fair as humanly possible,” though he added that he would wait and see how voters respond.

“I think the general effort to find new and better ways to give people a voice is headed in the right direction,” Smith said.

Neither party head advocated for Summit County to be its own House district, noting a partisan divide between the eastern and western ends of the county.

But Reed advocated for the greater Park City area to no longer be split among three House districts.

Redistricting can be an opaque process involving words like “packing and stacking” districts and gerrymandering, wherein legislators draw strangely shaped districts to gain a perceived political advantage.

Stereotypically, the dealmaking takes place outside of the public eye, where those with power tighten their grip on it, leaving the opposition to threaten, and sometimes file and win, lawsuits alleging discrimination.

In 2018, Utahns narrowly supported a ballot initiative to change the way the state’s maps are drawn. The independent commission is the result of that measure.

Lawmakers in 2020 replaced the measure with their own law that diverges from the plan voters approved in several ways but retains the commission. The law accomplishes the intent of the ballot initiative, according to Rosenberg.

The Legislature will still have its say, serving as the ultimate authority on political boundaries, but now legislators will be asked to weigh in on a publicly presented series of proposals. The commission’s proponents say that might create enough political pressure for the Legislature to adopt all, or at least part of, the commission’s recommendations.

One provision that remains is that the commission is forbidden from taking into account where current political leaders live, at least ostensibly opening the door to the possibility that a legislator will be drawn out of their current district.

Rosenberg describes redistricting as a “reset button on how our democracy functions” that officials can push every 10 years.

“If a voter feels like the districts were drawn in an unfair way, or a way that didn’t take their needs and values into account, they’re more likely to lose trust in the overall democratic system,” he said. “They’re less likely to turn out to vote, they’re less likely to think the whole system is set up to value their input.”

Since at least the early 2000s, Summit County Democrats have objected to the county being split among different House districts, indicating that the western side of the county, one of the state’s most left-leaning areas, has had its influence curtailed. Currently, all five state lawmakers whose districts include portions of Summit County — two senators and three House representatives — live elsewhere.

“Our community is intentionally divided,” Reed said. “… It feels very deliberate to me, in that we don’t have anyone from Summit County in the Legislature, (it) speaks volumes.”

Smith said he has never been a fan of gerrymandering and that he wants to see an equitable arrangement of districts where people have confidence that their vote counts.

“I know it is hard to account for the voice of the minority, especially in a state that has been a majority state for Republicans, but I think Utah has tried to find a way to make that work — the 4th Congressional District changing hands so often more or less reflects that,” Smith said.

Rosenberg said the commission will likely present maps in time for the Legislature to vote on them by the end of this year, so that politicians and hopefuls will know where to file for election.

He stressed the importance of public participation in the process.

“I am very, very optimistic they will create a series of maps we can all be happy with, but I think that relies on the public showing up,” he said.

State law requires the commission to hold no fewer than seven town halls to gather input this summer.

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