ST. GEORGE – Another initiative aiming to be on the 2018 ballot was filed last week. This initiative seeks to create an independent commission that could redraw legislative and congressional district boundaries following the 2020 census.
Drafted by a group called Utahns for Responsive Government, the “Utah Independent Redistricting and Standards Act” – better known as the “Better Boundaries” initiative – was submitted to the Lt. Governor’s office for review Thursday. It is the third ballot initiative to be filed so far this year. The other initiatives call for a tax hike providing more funding for schools, as well as legalizing medical marijuana.
The Better Boundaries initiative would create a bipartisan, seven-member advisory commission that would have no power to redraw the districts itself but would make recommendations to the Legislature following the once-a-decade census.
The Legislature could accept those recommendations or reject them. In the latter case, the Legislature would be required to explain its rejection in writing. Members of the commission would be chosen by the governor and the legislative heads of the political parties.
The initiative is being backed by former Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, a Democrat, and former Utah Department of Alcohol Beverage Control Commissioner Jeff Wright, a Republican. Both co-chair the Better Boundaries initiative drive.
“With the way the process works in Utah today and has been working, so many people feel disenfranchised, that their vote doesn’t count,” Becker told the Deseret News last week.
Utah has been accused by some of gerrymandering – or drawing voting districts – in such a way as to benefit a certain political party or class.
Following the 2010 census, the Legislature redrew congressional districts and added a fourth congressional district due to population growth. The redistricting process carved up the Democratic stronghold of Salt Lake County between three of the four congressional districts.
Pleas from Salt Lake City officials at the time were to keep the city whole. Instead it became a part of districts with rural areas that can have different, and even opposing, needs and interest.
“We are essentially urban areas that lose their voice under this kind of gerrymandering,” Peter Carroon, then-Democratic mayor of Salt Lake City, told The New York Times in December 2011. “What happens is, because we’re so lopsided politically, even if a Democrat wins in one of those districts, their legislative policies have to be so much focused on the rural areas.”
The Better Boundaries initiative would prioritize municipal boundaries over county boundaries yet keep them in a single district instead of breaking them up. It also calls for geographically compact maps and preserving traditional neighborhoods and local communities of interest.
Considering district boundaries based on where political data and where a candidate may live is prohibited under the initiative.
“This is a bipartisan issue because, while the last redistricting and gerrymandering here in Utah benefited the party I support, in many other states it goes against the party I support,” Wright said, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. “To avoid mutual assured destruction across the country, we need to have independent commissions.”
Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes’ chief of staff, Greg Hartley, issued a statement that states the job of redistricting is a responsibility of the Legislature, not an independent commission.
“Legislators are elected by the citizens of this state to perform specific duties detailed in the Utah Constitution and redistricting is a fundamental duty of the Legislature,” Hartley said.
The purpose of this process is to have an open and a public discussion, gather input and come to a consensus based on information and research through a bipartisan committee that puts recommendations before the entire legislative body. An initiative to create an advisory committee does not override or bypass the Constitution simply because some may not like the outcome.
Closer to home, Rep. Jon Stanard, R-St. George, and V. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, said they both had concerns over a ballot initiative being used to push the subject.
“I understand the concerns with redistricting,” Snow said, “but I am concerned about utilizing that (ballot initiative) process.”
Stanard said he prefers the legislative method toward redistricting, calling it a “very broad and open process.” Following the 2010 census, he said, the Legislature spent over a year and went through countless hearings until finally deciding on the current boundaries.
“I don’t think it’s going to be moved through the legislative process. We’ve tried,” Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, told the Deseret News. “This is one of those situations where the public is ahead of where the public officials are.”
Better Boundaries will need to gathering over 113,000 signatures from across 26 of Utah’s 29 counties by April 2018 and hold seven public hearings in order to get on that year’s ballot.
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