A few weeks ago, the ABU Education Fund released a report addressing the negative impacts of gerrymandering on rural Utah. You probably have not read it, because that report was 20 pages long and full of information that only policy weirdos like us care about.
With a fresh coat of tape on our glasses, we are pleased to present the tl;dr—Now you, too, shall be an expert on rural redistricting.
The Basics: Political district boundaries are redrawn every 10 years, after the U.S. Census. The Utah Constitution gives the state Legislature the authority to draw those boundaries. District boundaries will be redrawn in 2021, after the 2020 Census.
What happened last time? In 2011, republican lawmakers insisted that each congressional district had an “urban-rural mix”, with both urban and rural areas combined in each political district. The reason? They wanted all of Utah’s House Reps to be zealous about repealing public land designations. (That seems to have worked pretty well.)
Okay, so what did the people want? In a series of public hearings around the state, people mostly said that they did not support combining rural and urban areas together. Urban folks didn’t like it because it meant chopping up the Salt Lake area into multiple congressional districts, which would dilute the urban liberal vote. (This has worked very well.) Rural folks also didn’t like it, because they felt their issues would be overshadowed by more urban concerns. (This has also happened.) And because combining opposite regions like that doesn’t make sense. Representatives aren’t senators or governors—they are supposed to represent their specific communities.
What was the alternative to our current maps? Both rural folks and urban folks largely supported a “doughnut hole” map. Because the rural areas are on the outside of the state, one congressional district could combine all those areas into a rural-dominant district. That would also ensure that rural Utahns would be represented by someone who, you know, actually lives in rural Utah. (Currently, 61.3% of rural Utahns are represented by someone living one of the 3 biggest counties in the state.)
Who loses under the current maps? Salt Lake area voters totally lose out. It’s the most concentrated community in the state, and Salt Lake County is chopped up into 3 different congressional districts!
What people don’t talk about is that rural voters lose out, too. Rural Utahns have been asking for a majority-rural district for at least 20 years, but instead, rural areas are chopped up and treated like a solvent for urban parts of the state. They don’t get unified representation for their community, either.
But Rural Utahns like to vote Republican, and they’re represented by Republicans. What’s the big deal?
It’s true that rural Utahns generally vote for Republican candidates. But this is where demographics become important. The divide between rural and urban Utah is huge—it’s the 9th largest in the whole country. So rural and urban parts of the state have very distinct needs. The truth is, both political parties are dominated by people who live in urban parts of the state, and those people are often out of touch with rural Utah. Neither party has complete grasp on what rural Utahns want.
Urban democrats usually vote for public land protections and environmental regulations, which some rural Utahns are adamantly against. But urban republicans are just as bad. Rural Utah is in an economic recession, unlike the rest of the state. A lot of government programs either disproportionately benefit or are explicitly designed to help people and businesses in rural Utah. Who votes against these programs? Urban republicans, who can’t see the need for this spending because their communities aren’t affected by the same problems.
In sum, Salt Lake City and Rural Utah have the same problem. Both regions are broken up, and end up with representatives who don’t represent either community very well. Better district boundaries in Utah would keep those communities together, allowing them to have representatives who are from those communities.
You can read the full report, Fair Redistricting: A Better Deal for Rural Utah, here.