Over the past year, partisan gerrymandering during Utah’s redistricting process has resulted in protests at the state capitol and legal challenges by voting rights groups.
The League of Women Voters of Utah and the Mormon Women for Ethical Government filed a lawsuit alleging that the new maps — which were created last year after 2020 census data was released — are “partisan gerrymandered” and dilute the voting power of urban voters and a growing voting block in the state — Latino citizens.
“All four congressional districts contain a substantial minority of Democratic voters that will be perpetually overridden by the Republican majority of voters in each district, blocking these disfavored Utahns from electing a candidate of choice to any seat in the congressional delegation,” the lawsuit said.
Confronting gerrymandering is a top priority for voting rights advocates in a state that stands out among those under Republican control for having pretty broad access to elections. Utah mails ballots to every active registered voter and residents can cast ballots by mail, in a secure drop box or at a polling place. People can register to vote on Election Day. Utah doesn’t have a strict voter ID requirement like many red states.
But Utah hasn’t been immune from the frenzy of copycat legislation stemming from former President Donald Trump’s 2020 re-election loss and false allegations of voter fraud. Since then, the state’s Republican-controlled legislature has passed restrictions that could limit some Utah residents’ access to the polls.
It passed a law banning local officials from accepting private charitable funding to supplement the cost of running elections. Grants from foundations established by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger two years ago allowed underfunded local communities in a number of states to staff additional polling places and keep early voting hours open longer.
The same legislation introduced a new ID requirement for first-time voters and requires video surveillance of drop boxes, which could significantly cut down on their use this November due to the logistics and expense of implementing the requirement.
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This project looks at the state of voting access, voting rights and inequities in political representation in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
Over the decades, Republicans in Utah have garnered a reputation for gerrymandering the electoral map in their favor. After the 2000 census, Utah’s state legislature redrew the electoral map so that the state’s only Democratic representative in Congress, Rep. Jim Matheson, was moved outside his Salt Lake City-based district.
It happened again in 2011, when population growth meant the state gained an additional seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Republicans divided Salt Lake City, where one of the highest concentrations of people of color and Democratic-leading voters lived, into three different congressional districts dominated by more rural, Republican-leaning residents.
In 2020, advocates took the question straight to voters, who approved a ballot initiative to create an independent redistricting commission. However, through legislative maneuvers, the process produced the same results.
“The Utah Constitution is explicit that all power is inherent to the people, and the people of Utah have made it crystal clear that we want an independent redistricting process with standards that are voter-centric, versus locking in power and diluting accountability,” said Katie Wright, the executive director at Better Boundaries, one of the organizations that pushed for the nonpartisan commission.
A lawsuit after GOP ignores voter-approved redistricting
Better Boundaries circulated a petition in 2018 demanding an initiative be put on the ballot to create a non-partisan redistricting commission.
In November of that year, the Utah Independent Redistricting Commission and Standards Act passed, giving a non-partisan commission the ability to draw the new state electoral map once the 2020 census data was released.
However, the state legislature decided to undermine those results by passing a bill in 2020 limiting the power of the independent commission.
Last fall, the commission still publicly released its 12 maps for U.S. congressional, state house, state senate, and school board districts that were later submitted for consideration to a bipartisan legislative committee. They were then supposed to hold hearings and send a final proposal to the full legislature.
That didn’t happen.
The commission released its maps on Nov. 1, 2021. Days later, on a Friday evening, a state legislative committee of 15 Republicans and five Democrats released its own maps.
Still, throughout the process, Democrats fought to consider the commission’s maps.
Despite protests at the state capitol over that weekend, a special session began Monday morning on Nov. 8, 2021. The legislature voted to certify the legislature’s maps, and the governor later signed them into law, which violates the proposition voters passed in 2018.
“This is why we are suing today, it was a total repeal of the law,” said Katharine Biele, the president of the League of Women Voters of Utah. “They don’t seem to understand the concept of representative government. This is something the people passed because they wanted their representatives to create fair maps.”
Utah gained a congressional seat after the data for the 2020 census was released in part due to the state’s growing Latino population, which rose by nearly 38% in the last decade,with many families moving from California and other expensive West Coast cities to the Salt Lake City area.
“Utah is a changing state,” Wright said. “We are growing very quickly. We actually have a high urban population with 85% of people living along the Wasatch Front, and I believe one in four Utahans are [people of color]. We are rapidly growing and changing, and that’s a strength of our state.”
The lawsuit highlights how those communities will continue to fuel the population growth in the state and are the primary target of partisan gerrymandering, considering the rural parts of the state are losing population.
Republicans tried to justify the maps by saying that dividing up Salt Lake City will allow all of the state’s four congressional seats to have an “urban-rural mix.”
The voting rights groups are hoping the judge makes the state legislature approve one of the three congressional maps created by the state’s new independent redistricting commission.
“Communities of interest should be paid attention to. The legislature continues to insist there is no definition for communities of interest, so they will simply ignore that,” Biele said. “We found one community of interest happens to be rural Utah. There is enough population in rural Utah to create a rural congressional district. They did not even listen to that.”
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