Map of the proposed new Utah congressional districts. The dots represent public comments. [Screenshot from Utah legislature website]

This week the Utah State Legislature passed new districts for congressional, state house and senate, and state school board districts in Utah. Two smaller bodies, the Utah Legislative Redistricting Committee and the Utah Independent Redistricting Commission, have been collecting public input and working on draft maps for months. On Nov. 1, the independent commission submitted its recommendations to the legislative committee; the legislative committee voted instead to send on its own maps for consideration by the full legislature on Nov. 8. Many Utahns have expressed disappointment and outrage at the process and the final round of maps considered. Grand County will likely be reunited under one Utah house district in the new boundaries, something many locals had been hoping to see.

Committee vs. commission

The Legislative Redistricting Committee is a 20-member body made up of Utah representatives and senators that has spent months holding public hearings, accepting suggested district maps from the public, and creating draft maps. 15 of the members are Republicans and five are Democrats. Carl Albrecht (R, District 70), who represents part of Grand County, participated in the committee. The committee is responsible for recommending district maps for approval by the full legislature.

A separate body called the Independent Redistricting Commission conducted similar public outreach and created draft redistricting maps in parallel with the ULRC. The IRC was established by a proposition passed by Utah voters in 2018. Proponents of the commission wanted to create a body that would draw unbiased districts with full transparency. The seven members of the bipartisan commission were appointed by leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties and the chair was appointed by the governor. The IRC created three options for each of the types of districts being redrawn and submitted their recommendations to the Legislative Redistricting Committee on Nov. 1. The IRC exists only as an advisory body; the legislature is not obligated to consider or approve its suggestions.

On Oct. 25, days before the IRC presented its recommendations to the Legislative Redistricting Committee, former Congressman Rob Bishop resigned from his position on the IRC, expressing frustration with the body’s process. He advocated for including both rural and urban areas in each district, and called the commission “a metro-centric group.”

“I respect each of you as an individual,” Bishop said before leaving the meeting, “but I’m sorry, as a group, we suck.”

Proposals and reactions

The Legislative Redistricting Committee did not appear to have considered the IRC’s suggestions; instead, it released its own proposed maps on Nov. 5. The public was supposed to have had the weekend to review and comment on the maps, but the comment portal website was not functioning for part of the weekend. The Legislative Redistricting Committee held a public meeting on Monday, Nov. 8 to vote on which maps to bring before the full state legislature. Over 100 members of the public attended the five-hour meeting to make public comments; the vast majority were not pleased with the committee’s process and/or its proposed maps.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity to let my voice be heard today; but I was under the impression that my voice was heard in 2018, when I and the majority of people in this state voted for an independent redistricting commission. You all have ignored the will of the voters in that particular instance, and you’re ignoring us today,” said one frustrated commenter who introduced himself as a lifelong Utah resident. Many commenters asked the committee to choose one of the maps recommended by the IRC, pointing out that the IRC prioritized keeping communities together over other concerns. IRC maps split counties and cities fewer times than the ULRC’s maps, while still meeting population criteria.

The legislative committee explained that it prioritized maintaining even populations in all districts when drawing maps. The committee had a leeway of 0.1% of possible population deviation between congressional districts, of which there are four in Utah. This means there could have been as much as about 400 more or fewer people in one district than another (the 2020 census counted 3,271,616 people in Utah, about 500,000 more than were counted in the 2010 census). However, the committee said it strove for as close to zero deviation in population as possible. Other stated priorities included honoring county and city lines when possible and including both urban and rural areas in each district, as well as keeping existing blocks of voters together.

“After listening to Utahns and touring the state, Rep. Ray and I created maps that we believe

incorporate the interests of all Utahns,” said Senator Scott Sandall (R, District 17), who co-chaired the Legislative Redistricting Committee along with Representative Paul Ray (R, District 13), in a Nov. 5 press release. “The congressional map we propose has all four delegates representing both urban and rural parts of the state. Rural Utah is the reason there is food, water and energy in urban areas of the state. We are one Utah and believe both urban and rural interests should be represented in Washington, D.C. by the entire federal delegation.”

Commenters argued that combining urban and rural areas creates districts that contain conflicting interests and dilutes the voices of both areas; and that keeping blocks of voters together amounts to unethical protection of incumbent elected officials.

The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a national organization affiliated with the Democratic Party focused on redistricting reform, weighed in on Utah’s redistricting process on Nov. 10. Former Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., who chairs the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, issued this statement:

“…Utah voters took action in 2018 and passed a ballot measure that created an independent redistricting commission charged with executing a transparent redistricting process designed to produce fair maps. But Republican legislators immediately began to undermine this voter-approved commission and protect their ability to draw maps for their own political gain… Not only have they completely disregarded the hard work done by a citizen-supported commission, these politicians have ignored the will of the people and decided instead to protect Republican political careers.”

At the legislature

Several substitute congressional district maps failed to pass in the house, which approved the Legislative Redistricting Committee’s recommendation on Nov. 9, and sent the bill on for consideration by the senate. The map has now been passed by both the house and senate and will go on to the governor’s desk. Grand County’s representatives, Christine Watkins and Carl Albrecht, as well as Grand County’s state senator, David Hinkins, all voted in favor of the map. Governor Spencer Cox said in a Q&A on Nov. 9 that he will not veto the maps approved by the legislature.

The congressional district map groups Grand County with San Juan, Emery, Carbon, Wasatch, Duchesne, Uintah and Daggett counties along with parts of Summit, Utah, and Salt Lake counties into District 3. Right now Grand County’s congressional representative is John Curtis. The new boundaries put Moab in the same congressional district as Park City, as well as Sandy, Draper, and Holladay. The proposed congressional district maps also split Salt Lake County, Utah’s most populous county, into four districts, and split Salt Lake City into two districts. Many residents interpreted this as gerrymandering, deliberately breaking up the most Democratic population center into separate districts to dilute the voice of that community.

The legislature also passed the state house district maps on Nov. 10. Grand County’s elected officials also all voted in favor of this map. The Legislative Redistricting Commission’s proposal groups together Grand, Kane, San Juan, Garfield and Wayne counties and most of Emery county into District 69.

Currently Grand County is split between two house districts, represented by Christine Watkins and Carl Albrecht. Many in Grand County had hoped the county would be reunited under one representative in the redistricting process, giving the county greater influence with that elected official. The proposed map achieves that reunification.

The state senate map has also been passed by the legislature. The new map groups Grand County with San Juan, Carbon and Emery counties, along with parts of Kane, Garfield, Wayne, Utah and Wasatch counties into District 26. Right now, Grand County is represented by David Hinkins in the State Senate. The new boundaries expand the previous district boundary across the Colorado River to the west, putting Grand County, as well as Bear Ears National Monument, in the same senate district as much of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

The legislature passed a state school board map that was adjusted from the Legislative Redistricting Committee’s recommended map. The map puts Grand County into District 14 along with Emery, Carbon, Sanpete, Juab, Sevier, Millard, Beaver, and parts of Iron and Utah counties.

To view debates on the boundaries and review the maps, visit https://citygate.utleg.gov/legdistricting/utah/comment_links.