Under the best of circumstances the process of drawing political boundaries is a messy one, throw in the inherent bias that exists to create boundaries favorable to you and your political party, and all of a sudden you have a very real and very political mess on your hands.
There are several ways states have chosen to handle this decennial event; the least political way to draw lines consists of independent third parties drawing boundaries with full input from the public and buy-in from communities. Under these circumstances, boundaries will represent the people and legislative bodies generally represent the will of the people.
[pullquote]As demonstrated during the last redistributing effort in 2011, lawmakers are not particularly interested in fair representation for the people. Once again the fox is guarding the hen house[/pullquote]Another viable option is to fully embrace automation in the process, simply plugging in parameters into a computer and accept what it spits out. Of course, these parameters are open to debate (as we will discuss below), and it can result in some screwy borders – but the cold hard math has no inherent bias if the parameters that go into them are fair. With modern computing power, your desktop at home can easily produce several possible maps in a matter of hours.
However, the most political and least democratic way to draw lines consists of the political majority drawing boundaries behind closed doors where the public has no opportunities to provide input in the process. Under these circumstances, boundaries represent the optimal conditions for political parties to keep and gain power.
This third process is known as gerrymandering and is used to keep political parties in power even though they may not represent the people. Though several paragraphs could be written on why this is, CGP Gray does a very good job explaining it here:
Based on the state Constitution and how the GOP-dominated legislature acted during the last redistricting effort in 2011, Utah leans much more towards the “majority drawing the lines behind closed doors” side of things.
There are very few rules actually dictating how redistricting can take place, and they are so broad that only the most egregious examples are actually overturned. Those “rules” are:
- Compactness (Districts are as small as possible)
- Contiguity (Districts must not have “islands,” rather they must be connected)
- Equal Population (Districts must have roughly the same number of people)
- Preservation of Existing Political Communities (districts, cities, and counties are kept together as much as possible)
- Partisan Fairness (Partisan representation matches the number of partisan voters)
- Racial Fairness (racial representation matches racial populations)
As you can see, a lot of these are subjective – How compact is compact? Should political communities be crossed to preserve equal population? Does “partisan fairness” mean it is right to skew districts to preserve representation on the whole?
It is with that that we can finally turn our attention to HJR 1 – Joint Rules Resolution on Redistricting Standards from Representative Merrill Nelson (Republican – Grantsville).
Nelson’s resolution sets forth some very real and important guidelines to the redistributing process, adding some of the above-mentioned guidelines into rule that lawmakers would be expected to follow for future redisticting efforts.
But, aside from just saying that lawmakers should “follow the law,” Nelson puts into place some important additional guidelines such as keeping communities together whenever possible and, in the event that more than one community has to be used to create a legislative district, boundaries should be drawn the create borders with similar economic interests (this is most commonly visualized and determined through infrastructure such as roads or transit hubs).
In addition, the resolution provides some solid guidelines as to where lawmakers actually begin drawing lines.
Yes, one thing that can dramatically impact representation is where map makers actually begin drawing their map. If they start with an emphasis on preserving rural locations, maps can become quite skewed when the time comes to figuring out those urban districts. Similarly, if an emphasis is placed on preserving urban districts, rural districts can become skewed. Interestingly, due to Utah’s extremely concentrated population centers, this effect is reduced – if focus is placed on urban areas first, rural areas suffer less distortion than vice versa.
Nelson, who has one of the most rural House districts in the state, covering the four desert counties along the western border, knows exactly how a lack of focus on these types of issues can create districts that are difficult to electioneer in and even more difficult to represent. By giving priority to urban districts, the resolution will go a long way towards creating fair districts for the people on the whole.
And it is here where Nelson runs into his biggest hurdle legislatively. As demonstrated during the last redistributing effort in 2011, lawmakers are not particularly interested in compact districts that start with a focus on maintaining urban cores. How do we know those? Why, just look at the hatchet job that is Utah’s four congressional districts. Lawmakers outright said that they wanted it this way – the logic used was that congressional representatives should represent all of Utah. The reality, of course, was they wanted to get rid of Congressman Jim Matheson by drawing a map that featured three strongly Republican districts with one district that leans Republican instead of one that could have featured a district that leans Democrat, one that leans Republican, and two
The reality, of course, was they wanted to get rid of Congressman Jim Matheson by drawing a map that featured three strongly Republican districts with one district that leans Republican instead of one that could have featured a district that leans Democrat, one that leans Republican, and two solid Republican districts. This was achieved by splitting Salt Lake County into three, and Davis andUtah Counties in half. A more compact plan would feature Salt Lake County with a representative of their own, a South Salt Lake County, North/Central Utah County representative, a representative roughly from Davis County north, and then a rural, Southern Utah representative.
It is almost as if these partisan politicians are more interested in maintaining power than actually representing the people.
And that is why the resolution falls short from for citizens and does note provide true reform to the broken system. Making matters worse, the resolution has no mention of an independent third party to review the maps that are drawn – once again ensuring that the fox is guarding the hen house when it comes to redistributing.
To be sure, Nelson is taking a step in the right direction, but it is far from what it needs to be to ensure that people are properly represented by their representative government.
To contact Representative Peterson, click here or call 801-390-1480 (Cell).
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