Redistricting Bill Bounced Back for Study

Rebecca Chavez-Houck (Democrat - Salt Lake City)
Representative Rebecca Chavez-Houck (Democrat – Salt Lake City)

The establishment of an independent commission that would help guide the Legislature through the next round of redistricting has been delayed until at least next year, as members of the House Government Operations Committee opted Tuesday to study the proposal during interim.

HB 313 – Redistricting Provisions, sponsored by Representative Rebecca Chavez-Houck (Democrat – Salt Lake City), would have created the Advisory Redistricting Commission. As suggested in the name, their recommendations would be advisory only and legislators would maintain its power to set boundaries.

The commission would have nine members, including three retired judges, two unaffiliated voters, two Republicans, and two Democrats. The bill calls for elected officials and lobbyists to be banned from serving on the commission, though legislative leaders would make some appointments. Commission members would not be allowed to run for office or hold any of the offices for which the commission adopts a redistricting plan until the completion of the first election for that office that follows adoption of the redistricting plan.

A 2015 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court opened up redistricting to include redistricting by referendum, veto, independent commission, and others included in the lawmaking process.

Nicola Nelson, representing the League of Women Voters of Utah, testified about the need for an independent redistricting commission. She believes it will provide credibility and organization to the redistricting process. “It’s one of the most critical responsibilities of the Legislature. Having open commission meetings will help to avoid secret agreements and give those who are affected a chance to express their opinions. Appropriate redistricting can prevent the current situation in which neighborhoods are divided between districts and districts are geographically inconsistent.”

Jenny Pathak, speaking on behalf of the non-partisan advocacy group Represent Me Utah!, feels that an independent redistricting commission will save the Legislature time and money as well as engage the public more. “It will go a long way with public perception, maintaining the open and transparent process and increasing citizens’ involvement in their government.”

After making a motion to pass the bill out with a favorable recommendation, Representative Merrill Nelson (Republican – Grantsville) said that the public trust needs to be restored. “I think we all sense a pretty deep level of public mistrust in the redistricting process and dissatisfaction. We see voting levels dropping off; we see a lot of apathy. Something like this would go a long way to restoring public confidence in the process. I think it’s important that we do that.”

Opposing the motion, Representative Fred Cox (Republican – West Valley City) spoke to the fairness of the current process. “In the example of the House, we drew five brand new districts where we knew that the population was and we combined districts with many of our colleagues running against each other. Was everything perfect? No. Did everything come out the way I wanted it? No. But I believe that many of the maps that were presented by the redistricting committee ignored where incumbents were and ignored any partisan makeup.”

Representative Patrice Arent (Democrat – East Millcreek) commended the sponsor for bringing the bill forward, but made a substitute motion to send the legislation back to Rules with a recommendation for interim study. She feels that more research needs to be done and everyone should be involved in putting the bill together. “This is a very well-crafted bill. It’s very thoughtfully done. It’s a complicated issue that I think we are not in a rush to do because we are not going to be redrawing lines next year. I would like to make sure that everyone understands where we’re going, that we’re invested in this, that we have all the research done, what works well in all of the other states, what has not worked, a careful analysis of the recent Supreme Court case, and I think that’s going to take some time.”

The substitute motion passed unanimously.

“We are looking ahead to find the best path forward for Utah. States across the nation are having their redistricting efforts overturned by the courts every year. We need to be extremely sure that we are providing fair and equitable boundaries to guarantee fair and equitable elections,” said Chavez-Houck. “Potential for conflict of interest, partisan involvement, or closed-door meetings cannot and should not corrupt this process. By starting now and offering this kind of transparency, the legislature can avoid that entirely.”

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