Flagged Bill: HJR 5 – Joint Rules Resolution on Redistricting Standards – Rep. Merrill Nelson

Representative Merrill Nelson (Republican - Grantsville)
Representative Merrill Nelson (Republican – Grantsville)

Perhaps one of the most important events to take place in our democracy is the redistricting process. Once every ten years, the representative boundaries are drawn based on new population numbers and, in theory, help to ensure equal representation.

But the concept of “equal representation” is actually quite messy once you start diving into it. Though most would agree that a population of 10,000 people and 10 representatives should have 1,000 people per representative district, people will vastly disagree on what the political boundaries created during the redistricting process. To explain, we are going to need a visual:

Image Credit:  Cmglee, Wikipedia.
Image Credit: Cmglee, Wikipedia.

[pullquote]Redistircting is one of the most important events to take place in our democracy, but the process can be perverted in the name of politics. Representative Nelson is hoping to change that.[/pullquote]In the above scenario, there are nine blue squares and six red circles living in the area to be redistricted into three political districts, meaning that the population is split 60/40. Under ideal circumstances, the redistricting should represent the closest possible match to the whole – since it is only three districts, this would be a 66/33 split.

Under option A, red circles don’t have a majority in any newly drawn district, despite being a sizable minority. In the world of redistricting, this is known as “cracking” wherein a political party’s power (in this case the red circle party) is broken up and its overall power is diluted.

Option C is known as “packing” whereas many of one type of one voter are compressed into as few districts as possible (in this case the blue square party) so that their power is reduced overall.

Option B is an example of packing and stacking at the same time, where one party (red circle) is simultaneously diluted and condensed.

Of course, these are very basic examples – there is a big difference between 15 circles and squares and 3 million Utahns. But what these do show is that the group drawing the lines have an enormous amount of power in saying how elections results will turn out on-the-whole.

In Utah, the people choosing the boundaries (and by extension, probable winners) are the people who benefit from drawing the lines – the Utah State Legislature.

When the redistricting process is used to promote a political party or cause, it is known as gerrymandering – something very familiar to the Beehive State. In 2001, the Wall Street Journal called out Utah’s redistricting process as particularly egregious. And the numbers speak for themselves.

Roughly 65 percent of voters identify as Republican while 20 percent identify as Democrat, with 12 percent that consider themselves truly unaffiliated. Assuming that truly unaffiliated voters split their vote, it is reasonable to assume that Utah should have about a 75/25 split in representation. This, however, is not the case.

In 2001, there were 39 of 104 Democratic lawmakers on the Hill; in 2003, when new boundaries were used in the 2002 election, the number of Democrats dropped to 26 out of 104. By 2011 there were 24 Democratic lawmakers; in 2013 it would drop to 19. Currently there are only 17 Democrats (or 16 percent total) Democrats in office.

One of the probable reasons for this is gerrymandering and the fact that, aside from requiring roughly the same number of people per district, there are very few rules around the redistricting process.

And so we finally turn to HJR 5 – Joint Rules Resolution on Redistricting Standards from Representative Merrill Nelson (Republican – Grantsville).

The resolution would create some actual parameters and guidelines around the redistricting process that should ideally be adhered to:

  1. Compactness – all districts must be as small as possible, no sprawling districts.
  2. Respect of political boundaries – whenever possible cities and counties will not be divided by districts, with greater respect for counties.
  3. Respecting transit corridors when districts cross political boundaries – roads and rails indicate economic and social interconnectedness, and, therefore, have similar interests.
  4. When creating boundaries, start with smaller populations first and build out – This ensures greater representation for rural districts, which sometimes are carved into in order to fill out a larger district’s numbers despite not sharing many attributes.

These are all solid and well-respected guidelines for creating fair boundaries within the state and, if used, could bring greater representation on Capitol Hill.Nelson does lose marks, however, for not mentioning an independent commission

Nelson does lose marks for not mentioning an independent commission as part of the redistricting process. Why? Because having the legislature draw lines is inherently a conflict of interest – but the resolution is a step in the right direction.

If successful, HJR 5 wouldn’t become law, and citizens couldn’t sue if they felt the legislature ignored them. But now is the time to start the redistricting discussion, when no chips are on the table and cooler heads can prevail.

To contact Representative Nelson, click here or call 801-971-2172 (Cell).

You can track this, and all of our other flagged bills, by clicking here. Need an explanation of scores? Click Here.

Impact on Average Utahn 0-1-2-3-4-5
Need for Legislation 0-1-2-3-4-5
Lemon Score 0-1-2-3-4-5
Overall Grade B

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