Grand County Commissioner Kevin Walker is spearheading the effort to redraw the county’s commission districts, which is supposed to take place every 10 years along with the national census, Walker said, but did not happen in 2000 or 2010.

In an interview with the Moab Sun News, Walker explained that the county will need to establish five districts for county commissioners, as well as five school board districts and five voter participation areas for county referendums. The same boundaries can be used for each of the three district needs.

Walker, who is the chair of the Democratic Party in Grand County, said he has invited local Republican leaders to also get involved in the effort. The process will use an online public input portal where residents can propose district maps. Walker hopes both major political parties will submit maps through the redistricting portal, and flag any submitted maps that seem unfair. Once the submission window has closed, the commission will evaluate the submissions and eliminate any that seem problematic.

“We’ll consider a reasonable range of alternatives and try to eliminate the ones that seem to be outliers,” said Walker. “We’re trying to come up with a procedure that’s very open.”

Earlier this year, Walker requested bids from three consulting firms for advising the county in defining the new district boundaries, and the commission approved a $6,160 contract with MGGG Redistricting Lab. At a June 15 pre-meeting workshop held by the Grand County Commission, Moon Duchin, a representative from MGGG, gave a presentation on redistricting in general and on the launching of the online portal through which the public can give input on the county’s new voting districts.

Districting parameters

Duchin touched on the rules that govern redistricting, which, she noted, are mostly established state-by-state, and can be difficult to implement.

Federal requirements mandate that voting districts have equal populations—the “one person, one vote” rule. Walker noted that while it would be nearly impossible to make the populations of the districts exactly equal, a variance of 10% is acceptable. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 dictates that large minority groups must be provided with the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice—that is, where it is possible to create such an opportunity, redistricting authorities should do so.

Other rules and guidelines direct that the shape of districts should be contiguous and compact. An effort should be made to keep “communities of interest” together in a voting district. A community of interest is a residential area that shares concerns and needs a voice in government. Those concerns may pertain to culture, education, industry, infrastructure, or the environment.

Map-makers should strive for partisan fairness in voting districts, and Duchin noted that there are many, sometimes opposing, approaches to achieving that objective, and it can be difficult to evaluate whether fairness is being achieved.

District drawers should use municipal and county lines as district lines when possible. “Don’t split something that has an identity, unless you have to,” said Duchin, summarizing the intent of the rule. In earlier interviews, Walker also noted that the districts should be perceived as fair and rational—for example, it would be irrational to draw a district that split up an apartment building.

All of these rules have nuances. For example, in the case of communities of interest, Duchin explained the concept of “packing and cracking.” Communities of interest are well-served if they are kept whole within a voting district, giving them a strong voice within that district—but that’s only true to a point. If a community of interest makes up 75% or more of a voting district, that community would be better served if it were split among two districts, giving that community a strong voice in both.

Duchin acknowledged that the list of parameters is long, vague, and contains internal tensions. She said that beginning in the 1960s, redistricting officials hoped to use computers to create unbiased district maps that met all regulations and parameters.

“People thought computers would do the redistricting for them—that was the dream of the 1960s,” said Duchin. People were disappointed, however. Redistricting turned out to be “too big of a math problem” for computers to solve in a reasonable timeframe. It also became apparent that things like perceptions of fairness and common interests are difficult for computers to evaluate.

“We’re no longer thinking about how to pick the ‘best’ one, because people realized how human it is,” Duchin said of the map drawing process. “You really need human thought and human agency.”

Striving for fairness

In an earlier interview, Walker explained how mathematicians have devised a way to arrive at the most fair map possible in terms of avoiding political gerrymandering.

“You get your computer to draw thousands of maps, or tens of thousands of maps,” he explained. “It knows census figures, but not partisan information.” The computer can be programmed to create maps that meet criteria like equal population sizes and contiguity.

Once the computer has made the maps, known partisan information can be entered into the hypothetical districts and predictions about what candidates would win using each of those maps can be made. Running this process on a large number of maps can reveal what a fair outcome should be. Any map that produces obviously outlying results can be eliminated, and a map that meets the most common likely outcome is probably fair in terms of partisanship.

Using this approach in Grand County is difficult, however. The county’s population is extremely concentrated in one area, and voting precincts are “huge” relative to the size of commission districts, meaning they aren’t useful units to use in predicting how votes might change as district lines move. In addition, the next local elections will be the first in many years in Grand County that will be partisan. Since the early 1990s, local elections have been nonpartisan, until the state law HB 224 mandated a change in Grand County’s form of government as well as partisan elections.

Public input

MGGG uses a program called districtr to allow people to use a computer’s help to create district maps. This online portal can be reached at https://portal.utah-mapping.org/ and is currently open to the public.

The portal offers three ways for residents to offer input on district maps: people can submit written comments, identify communities of interest, and/or use the portal’s district map drawing tool to propose a desired district map. The drawing tool shows the user the population of the proposed districts as they’re being drawn (using population estimates, as the 2020 census data is not yet available.) There are also data layers that can show demographic information. Submitted plans appear in a submission gallery on the site, where other users can explore and comment on them. If the program feels overwhelming, the website also has links to training information.

“We host trainings twice a week… a lot of folks find it intimidating,” said Duchin, inviting anyone to drop into the training sessions.

This public input tool will help the commission evaluate the more “human” aspects of voting districts, like perceived fairness and communities of interest.

The state of Utah is also undergoing the redistricting process, for the first time conducted through the new Utah Independent Redistricting Commission, a body established by proposition in 2018 with the goal of bringing more transparency and fairness to the process.

A previous draft of this article misstated the years of the U.S. Census. We regret the error.