It’s with a shared sense of conviction that I hear Utahns, including myself, contend that our state is turning purple with each election. A pat on the back, a smile exchanged as we assure ourselves our state is one shifting in the favor of progress, one that is learning to reflect the interests and politics of its adapting population. That is, until we account for partisan gerrymandering.
Utah’s struggle with redistricting is an enduring ordeal, one marked in allegations of extreme manipulation, the misuse of legislative government, and a lack of transparency on part of lawmakers. The oral arguments at the Utah Supreme Court last month are a culmination of the peoples’ dissatisfaction with the treatment of their voting rights.
Organizations including the League of Women Voters of Utah and the Mormon Women for Ethical Government, as well as a handful of individual plaintiffs, sued the Utah Legislature for extreme partisan gerrymandering through the approval of a redistricting map that splits Salt Lake County, the sole democratic-leaning block, into 4 congressional districts. Debate surrounding this map has become muddled, though one fact remains undeniable: the map ensures the Republican majority isn’t going anywhere, stifling and diluting the ballots of voters as an additional security measure.
The journey to the courtroom chronicles a back and forth between the Legislature and the people going back to the 2018 midterm elections in which voters passed the ballot initiative, Proposition 4. The law, enacted by a non-partisan coalition under the Better Boundaries initiative, created the Utah Independent Redistricting Commission (UIRC) responsible for drawing new congressional maps once every decade to be considered by legislators. The objectives of the commissioners were to limit partisan gerrymandering in redistricting and provide a map that accurately reflects a changing population.
However, in 2020, state legislators reasserted control over redistricting through the passage of SB200, which repealed the anti-gerrymandering structures of Prop 4 and removed the requirement for the Legislature to explain its rejection of the UIRC maps. SB200 also allowed legislators to retain their own redistricting committee, an advisory body that was no longer required to adopt standards in drawing maps, unlike the UIRC. Simply put, the Legislature overrode initiative efforts by the people, restoring unchecked power to freely draw and implement maps.
Legislators largely believed they had regained this power through the controversial 2019 Supreme Court joint rulings in Rucho v. Common Cause and Lamone v. Benisek that ended Federal courts’ role in adjudicating partisan gerrymandering cases. With seemingly no federal role in overseeing partisan gerrymandering, Republican legislators enacted their own map in 2021 that divided Salt Lake County into 4 congressional districts.
The quartering or “cracking” of these new districts diluted the votes of Utahns living in and around the Salt Lake City area by placing them in scattered districts marked by white and rural demographics. Spreading out these votes ensures that “more conservative Republican voters” from rural parts of the state will “always overwhelm” Democratic voters in the Salt Lake City area, as the senior director of redistricting at the Campaign Legal Center Mark Gaber maintains in his report.
One of the takeaways remains that these plans for redistricting terminate any chance for meaningful, progressive bipartisanship; Democratic voters or moderate Republican voters in the urban Salt Lake area will no longer have the opportunity to vote together as a cohesive unit to elect their candidate of choice. A lack of competition breeds animosity amongst parties, and rightfully so.
The lawsuit against the Utah Legislature followed swiftly, filed in March of 2022, bringing the argument to the state’s highest court. In the courtroom, both the plaintiffs and defendants used the Utah Constitution as the lifeline for their arguments. The first of two points that pervaded the hearing focused on the repeal of Proposition 4, an unconstitutional breach of legislative power.
From my perspective sitting on a courtroom bench, the defendants’ arguments appeared very circular and circumspect. When the attorney representing the defendants argued that citizens looking to reform government must do so through the amendment process as opposed to through initiatives, Justices countered with a reminder that the process of proposing an amendment is guarded by the Legislature and restricted to the people.
The Legislature urges people to organize initiative power in the way our forefathers sought, but not before asking them to be so kind as to swallow back their proposals and direct their complaints towards the proper channels. Advocate for an amendment that won’t be touched, talk into the already blocked ear of a legislature whose seat is saved and kept warm by the very redistricting plans the voters aim to strike down, maybe make a poster or two. It’s a cycle the Justices themselves prodded at, pointing out that the Utah Constitution provides no limitations to the legislature’s power to repeal, making it virtually impossible for reform they disagree with to ever take shape.
This conjures the heart of the case: whose jurisdiction is it anyways? Defendants tried to argue that upholding an independent redistricting commission of non-legislators is anti-democratic, but what’s so democratic about having legislators draw the boundaries that will secure an election in their favor? Political motive cannot be extricated from drawing political lines, no matter who draws them, but a minority, largely made up of civilians, advocating for its demographic pales in comparison to a reigning majority eliminating any semblance of competition.
It’s important to remember the UIRC is not exempt from legislative review, as each commissioner has to be appointed by officers such as the governor, the speaker of the house of representatives or the president of the Senate. In order to be eligible, commissioners must also either be employed by the legislature or hold an elective office.
What surprised me was that the legislative defendants did not separate themselves from a narrative of gerrymandering or denounce the allegations presented. Instead legislators scraped together excerpts and antiquated anecdotes of 19th century government to argue they were well within their constitutional rights to manipulate lines. This approach only extends the validity of the plaintiffs’ argument that redistricting efforts is a blatant violation of the Utah constitution’s Free Elections Clause, the state’s basis for a functioning democracy.
Though defendants asserted redistricting cannot be seen as a violation because it doesn’t prevent people from accessing a ballot, what’s incentivizing a member of the minority party to vote knowing their ballot is ultimately inconsequential amid a cracked county?
Hope still remains, as the Legislature’s clinging to the 2019 Supreme Court ruling that state maps aren’t within federal purview may have undermined the argument of state jurisdiction, or lack thereof. Because federal courts are now barred from intervening in cases of state gerrymandering, state courts are now the stage for challenging redistricting, with many states bringing similar cases of gerrymandering to their supreme courts over the past few months.
Though the Utah Supreme Court has given no indication of any future ruling to come on this case, keep in mind that maintaining a democracy is a priority met with more and more scrutiny and attention every day, and that power for governmental reform remains an inherent right that will endure. Elections, like everything else, require boundaries, but you deserve to have a say in yours.