Redistricting initiative complicated, devisive
(Editor's note: This is the third of three articles dealing with the initiative process in Utah and examining the pros and cons of petitions presently being circulated to put initiatives on the 2010 general election ballot in Utah.)
It is a common complaint in the Carbon County area that partisan politics split the county in its state legislature representation a decade ago.
But, if it had stayed intact within one legislative district because the opposite party had been in power, how would Carbonites see it then?
Those are questions raised by each side in the debate over an initiative petition filed in the Utah lieutenant governor's office in May of this year. In a nutshell, initiative backers want to set up an independent commission to redistrict legislative, state school board and congressional districts in the state, rather than having it done by the legislature itself.
While there are a number of backers of the petition drive, the Utah Fair Boundary Coalition is the main initiative sponsor. Their theme for promoting the movement is "Elected officials are choosing their voters--instead of voters choosing their leaders."
Those who submitted the petition drive include 21 people from many parts of the state including five from Salt Lake City, four from Park City, and one each from Monroe, St. George, Mendon, Morgan, Bountiful, Pleasant Grove, Sandy, Roy, Ogden, Springville, Grantsville and Price.
The opponents of such a move are many, including many who are presently part of the legislative bodies that meet at the capitol.
"What they are looking for is to create a commission that is non-partisan, but I don't see how they could find people who didn't have some kind of interest in what the boundary lines are," said State Senator David Hinkins, who represents both Carbon and Emery counties in District 27. "It seems to me that everyone would have some kind of self interest."
However, there are many organizations and a number of people in municipal governments that support the idea. The major newspapers in the state have endorsed the move, along with some of the major television stations. City and county officials from Tooele to Sanpete County also support a change.
While the petition to obtain 95,000 signatures to put the initiative on the ballot is now circulating, the initiative itself, for many, seems simple enough. The idea is to form an 11- member commission to decide how to redistrict state legislative (senate and house seats) and congressional districts every 10 years in relationship to the national census numbers collected by the federal government.
But, as in all things legislative, there is a lot more to the initiative than initially meets the eye. According to ballotpedia.org the initiative does the following, among other things.
Requires that redistricting occur only every 10 years after the decennial census or in association with a change in the number of congressional, legislative, or state school board seats for a reason other than the decimal census.
Provides the standards for election districts.
Establishes an independent redistricting commission that is composed of Utah citizens.
Establishes the membership requirements and procedures for the commission and provides for the replacement and compensation of members of the commission.
Requires the commission to prepare a redistricting plan for presentation at public hearings and to the legislature.
Provides a uniform scoring matrix for the commission's creation and consideration when preparing a redistricting plan and requires the commission's final plan to be based on the scoring matrix.
Permits alternative plans submitted by citizens and commission members to be considered and scored by the commission.
Provides the technical staff for the commission be provided by the office of legislative research and general counsel and permits the commission to hire its own legal counsel for legal assistance.
Requires the commission to request a supermajority vote that the plan be submitted to the legislature for the legislature's approval or rejection at a special session and requires the legislature to prepare a redistricting plan pursuant to the scoring matrix, in compliance with mandatory anti-gerrymandering standards, and subject to the Open and Public Meetings Act, Title 52, Chapter 4, if the commission's plan is rejected.
It provides a severability clause.
Proponents find the idea appealing; a group of people who choose the district boundaries through a formula without any political content.
"I have heard nothing but good about these kinds of commissions from people who have them in other states," said District representative, Christine Watkins, whose district is accountable to geographically two-thirds of Carbon County. Watkins' district is one of those highlighted (along with District 67 that represents the rest of the county) in a compilation of what the Fair Boundaries Coalition sees as problems in the state. "We have communities in this state that are broken up, broken apart in their interests and goals by the way some of these boundaries have been set."
Watkins pointed out that people who represent communities are sometimes geographically hours farther away from their constituents than they should be.
"Look at John Mathis (District 55) who lives in Vernal and has to drive five hours to visit with the people he represents in Grand County," said Watkins. "It just hasn't been right."
Opposition to the initiative is strong, particularly from some powerful figures. Their opposition has been reinforced by a recent court ruling (August) by the Utah Supreme Court which said, even if there was a commission, the legislature could still draw their own lines.
Dave Clark, state senator from Santa Clara, is well known as one of the main opposing figures. He presently chairs the legislative redistricting committee for the National Conference of State Legislatures and has a lot to say regarding this issue. He says a change such as a redistricting commission would invite lawsuits and any commission would not be as qualified regarding redistricting as the legislators themselves, because they are the people who know their districts and the people they represent. He also says any borders in the past were drawn more because of population shifts rather than politics.
A number of polls have been taken and it appears the initiative has garnered public support, although numbers among those claiming to be Republicans are not nearly as strong as those who denote themselves as Democrats.
The local complaints that are heard about redistricting, says Hinkins, however, they have to do with the reality of the state's population.
"If you have population-based representation, it is impossible to not have Utah County as part of the state districts in our area," he said. "They could divide it up differently, but that would mean taking metropolitan areas and just cutting little slivers out of them and that would break up their communities. There is no easy answer to this."
To see the actual initiative, go to www.fairboundaries.org.