Better Boundaries Initiative

Summary

Sponsor: Utahns for Responsible Government

This initiative would create an independent, seven-member bipartisan commission charged with the once-a-decade task of drawing new boundaries for legislative and congressional districts in Utah. Members would be appointed by the Governor, House Speaker, Senate President and majority and minority leaders. The commission would submit its boundary recommendations to the legislature, which would vote on whether to accept them; lawmakers would be required to provide a written explanation for any rejected recommendations.

Currently, district boundaries are drawn by the incumbent state legislature.

Yes & No Votes

“YES” Vote Means

An independent redistricting commission will be created to recommend changes for the legislative district boundaries in 2021. The Utah legislature will retain the power to accept or reject the commission’s recommendations.

“NO” Vote Means

Incumbent legislators will retain sole power over changes in district boundaries.

Supporting & Opposing Arguments

Arguments for Redistricting

  • Using an independent, bipartisan commission to map Utah’s  Congressional and Legislative districts would help prevent boundaries from being drawn in a way that favors a dominant political party (gerrymandering).
  • The independent commission’s standards would focus on creating compact, contiguous districts using natural geographic boundaries.
  • The independent commission’s standards would avoid dividing cities and traditional neighborhoods among two or more districts (15 cities are currently split into different congressional districts).
  • Partisan political data (such as election results) and incumbents’ addresses could not be used in determining boundaries.

Arguments Against Redistricting

  • Incumbent legislators may find themselves drawn out of their own districts.
  • Although 46.5 percent of Utah voters are registered as Republican and only 11.5 percent as Democrat, three of the seven commission members would be appointed by the minority party, giving them a disproportionate role.
  • Utah’s Constitution states that the Legislature is responsible for redistricting, making an advisory commission unnecessary.

Background

Similar redistricting reforms have been enacted in 17 other states.

Utah has a Republican supermajority in the Legislature, House and Senate; it also had the third-lowest voter turnout in the U.S. last year. The main reason for the low turnout, according to the deputy director of state elections, is a lack of competitive races.

The state Legislature has made several unsuccessful attempts to codify the way district boundaries are drawn. In 2017, the Joint Rules Resolution on Redistricting Standards (HJR 1) was proposed to create “principles and procedures to guide the Legislature during redistricting,” with a focus on creating compact, contiguous districts that would follow county and municipal boundaries. After being approved by the House, it was voted down in Senate committee. Also in 2017, Redistricting Amendments (HB 411) was proposed to establish an Advisory Redistricting Commission to prepare redistricting plans; it was shelved without a vote.  Earlier versions of each of these bills, HJR 5 and HB 313, had failed to pass in 2016.

District boundaries drawn by the state legislature in 2001 and 2011 have been cited as examples of gerrymandering: manipulating the composition of electoral districts in a way that gives one political party an unfair advantage. The Wall Street Journal called Utah’s 2001 redistricting a “scam” that produced “effective disenfranchisement”; the most blatant example was splitting up a Democratic congressman’s Salt Lake City district and replacing urban voters with those from from 14 rural counties. The overall result for the state: in the decade that followed, Democrats typically received 40% of total votes, but won only 25% of seats.

In 2011, redistricting included a fourth congressional district gained from population growth in the 2010 census. The final congressional maps, drawn by the GOP-dominated legislature, divided Salt Lake County residents among three different districts in “pizza-slice-shaped” configurations that extended from a narrow urban point to wide areas of rural counties. In the time since those maps took effect, only 14 of 271 House races have been competitive enough to be decided by 5% of voters or less.

Important Groups